The Districts are no ordinary rock band. They might come off as one, though. When representation remains an issue even in a field as progressive as music, who’s to blame for passing over the familiar trope of four white dudes in a Philly-based outfit playing guitar, drums, and bass in favor of something else?
This would be a mistake. There are plenty of reasons The Districts’ music began to take off before these guys had even graduated high school; the band’s charm is undeniable to even the strongest of cynics. Playful dynamics and biting tales of romance, often littered with an occasional, easy-to-miss joke, have been the group’s signature since its self-released, debut LP, Telephone, in 2012. Later, the band’s first full-length for storied indie label Fat Possum, 2015’s sophomore effort A Flourish and a Spoil, brought the band to its biggest audience yet without sacrificing the qualities that its earliest fans cherished. Popular Manipulations, The Districts’ third and newest album, takes that album’s highlights—beefy guitar tones, disarming vocals and stories specific and sometimes surreal—and blows them up with stronger and more varied songwriting, sharper production, and crisper mixing.
Grammy-winning Flourish producer John Congleton only contributed to four tracks on Popular Manipulations; the band self-recorded the rest with friend and Pine Barons member Keith Abrams. This newest album is thus more of a refocusing than a transformation; for example, if Flourish’s breakout hit “4th and Roebling” is a supercharged mess of overdrive and invigorating bass drum groove, Manipulations’ “Violet” is its sweeter, more militaristic brother. Drummer Braden Lawrence mostly sounds like a cannon as Grote and Pat Cassidy churn out guitars as pretty as they are ferocious, a synth faintly swirling as Grote sings mysteriously yet lovingly of a special someone in his life. “Fat Kiddo,” perhaps the album’s closest link to previous works, smears fuzzed-out acoustic guitars over a deceptively gentle pop abyss as Grote eerily ponders mass grieving.
But that’s about it as ties to the past go. Otherwise, Popular Manipulations is newly forceful both instrumentally and vocally. “Salt” finds Grote in an almost Isaac Brock-like state of beckoning as he tastes “a little birdie with a broken wing,” his band depicting the solemnity of heartbreak via a tense crescendo that later leads to perhaps the album’s sludgiest moment. Bassist Connor Jacobus comes crashing through the background, with just 30 seconds left, like Vincent Vega if he’d actually pummeled his car into Lance’s house. “Rattling of the Heart” is similarly thick, bass literally rattling its chorus as Grote goes full Spencer Krug, to whom he’s sometimes compared. As well, “If Before I Wake” thunders in (again, literally—“thunder woke me up” is its first lyric) with a guitar blast as unexpected and borderline comical as Grote’s self-deprecation: “Would you start to miss me/or am I all alone?/No, I’m just a narcissist.”
Fans likely saw this growth coming: “Ordinary Day,” which was released two months before Popular Manipulations was even announced, is a convergence of everything new The Districts are doing. Its chorus is louder and more distorted than its verse, which is louder than its intro. Its guitars are as thick as they are blurry, more empowering than ever as they swallow Jacobus’ bass. This is to mention nothing of Grote’s falsetto, a previously unexplored range of his voice. Then, of course, there’s that hilarious contrast between the sequential lyrics “An ordinary sunset/an ordinary day” and “I’ll let you down again,” a 180 from beautiful to self-effacing. Popular Manipulations resembles a sunset that’s far more than ordinary, the red sky at night before the darkness of the latest hours. It’s not letting anyone down.