Since their self-released debut made a critical splash and got the then high-school band signed to Fat Possum, The Districts have seemed to belong to a different age: the Pennsylvania group’s penchant for plaid shirts and moody guitar theatrics evoked the likes of Pearl Jam and even Crazy Horse, while singer Rob Grote’s vocals recalled the early 2000s indie of Wolf Parade, Arcade Fire and My Morning Jacket. A Flourish And A Spoil, their sophomore effort, was a minor triumph which found Grote singing tales of small town heartbreak over garagy riffs that The Replacements would be proud of.
Popular Manipulations is a different beast altogether, though: the lo-fi, classic rock indebted production has been traded in for a fuller sound, incorporating synthesisers and filters on Braden Lawrence’s drums. It’s the sound of the band fully embracing early 2000s emo. Grote wails “To blessed to be depressed, thank Jesus/ God I’m bending over, love me” on opening track ‘If Before I Wake’ with more than a hint of Bright Eyes expressiveness. Grote’s vocals sit right at the front of the mix and is a dead ringer for Funeral-era Win Butler. It’s emotive, stirring stuff, especially on the anthemic ‘Violet’, which is propelled by jangly guitars and synthesisers crashing together in a thrilling crescendo. The addition of a synthesiser adds a chilly layer to ‘Salt’s’ shards of guitar, another standout which sounds ready-made for crowd singalongs.
The band’s earliest work tipped it’s head to earnest folk, which reappears several times on this record too, although seemingly more indebted to Bon Iver or Neutral Milk Hotel than Bob Dylan. Over the finger-picked acoustic guitar of ‘Why I Wanna Be’, Grote adopts a Justin Vernon style falsetto, lending a an extra calmness to the track which, in an album otherwise full of wailing guitars and crashing, serves as a sort of oasis at the its midpoint. Although he was always in possession of a fine, throaty holler, Grote’s vocal work on this record is remarkable: emotive and vulnerable, he sings the tales of self-doubt and heartbreak with a beguiling conviction. The album’s centrepiece follows ‘Why I Wanna Be’, ‘The Point.’ A rumbling riff from Pat Cassidy is matched with Grote’s heartfelt lyrics of bitter disappointment (“So try to pretend /This is how it should happen/ But I know in my heart/ And I know in my head”) before leading into the band’s finest chorus to date, a damning, cathartic gang shout along to “The point is beside the point now.” It feels intimate yet sounds massive, personal while universal.
Popular Manipulations may be something of a disappointment to some of The Districts’ early fans who enjoyed how much their work owed to the 70s, but the majority should embrace it as a major step forward, both sonically and artistically. Popular Manipulations feels like the record The Districts have been striving to make since their high school beginnings. Although musically rooted in the past, The Districts’ passion and guile make their songs sound fresh, vibrant and absolutely essential. Caolán Coleman