It’s not uncommon for musicians to grow and evolve between releases — but even by those standards, the Districts’ Popular Manipulations is stunning. The Pennsylvania-borne band’s third full-length represents an exponential leap in sound and cohesion, an impressive and impassioned burn with a wide scope that threatens to swallow everything else surrounding it. Perhaps it’s a cliché to say so, but while listening, you might find yourself wondering why people don’t make indie rock like this anymore.
The total electric charge of Popular Manipulations is just the latest evolution for the impressively young quartet, whose founding members — vocalist/guitarist Rob Grote, bassist Connor Jacobus, and drummer Braden Lawrence — have known each other since attending grade school together in the Pennsylvania town of Lititz. After deciding to form a band in high school, the Districts gigged hard in the tri-state area, releasing a slew of promising material (including the rootsy 2012 debut Telephone) before catching the eye of venerable indie Fat Possum. 2015’s A Flourish and a Spoil found the band refining their embryonic sound with veteran producer John Congleton (St. Vincent, Kurt Vile) — and looking back on that release, there are glimmers of Popular Manipulations in chrysalis form to be found on it, hints of the fence-swinging anthemic sound they’d soon make wholly their own.
After touring behind A Flourish and a Spoil, Grote began “playing with different ideas” in his own songwriting by making demos at a prolific pace. “We knew that we wanted to change some things musically, so we were trying to come up with as many songs as possible to narrow the direction we wanted to take the material,” he states. In total, they ended up with 50 song ideas, and so they were off to LA in May of 2016 with new guitarist Pat Cassidy in tow to log more recording time with Congleton, with four of Popular Manipulations’ songs coming out of the sessions.
“We have a lot of overlapping tastes and preferences for how things are made,” Grote gushes about working with the notably reliable studio wizard — but acceding all credit to Congleton (who also handled the record’s mixdown) would be shortchanging the Districts themselves, who went on to self-produce the remainder of the record in Philadelphia with engineer Keith Abrams. “Something we took from working with Congleton was ideas on arranging songs,” Grote explains, and they certainly learned a lot: Popular Manipulations is a raucous and impressively thick-sounding album, overflowing with toothy melodies that pack a serious punch.
The distinctly intense sound of Popular Manipulations — charging guitars, thunderous drumming, and Grote’s searing vocals — was brought on by a few cited influences, from shoegaze’s aggressive swirl to the Velvet Underground’s impeccable drone-rock sound. There’s a distinctly Canadian flavor to this brand of indie rock, too; Spencer Krug’s anthemic, lushly inscrutable work in Wolf Parade and his defunct Sunset Rubdown side project comes to mind, as does 2000s Toronto barnburners the Diableros’ overlooked 2006 gem You Can’t Break the Strings in Our Olympic Hearts.
But don’t mistake easy comparisons for a lack of originality: on Popular Manipulations, the District are in a lane entirely their own, exploring lyrical themes of isolation and abandonment in a way that ups the music’s already highly charged emotional quotient. “Capable” finds Grote turning his focus to the ruinous aftermath of divorce, and “Before I Wake” is, in his words, “About coming to terms with being isolated or alone — even though we have a whole group of voices singing the whole time.” Grote explains that even the title of the record touches on these universal concerns: “It hints at how people use each other, for good or bad, and the personal ways you manipulate yourself and other people in day-to-day interactions.”
For such weighty thematic material, though, Popular Manipulations is purely life-affirming rock music, bursting with energy that cuts through the darkness of the world that surrounds us. “We’re a much better distillation of who we wish to be as a band,” Grote reflects on the journey that has led the Districts to this point. “We’ve figured out how to distill the things we’ve been trying to accomplish as a band, musically and lyrically. We’ve always viewed making music as something we’re trying to do better the whole time.” Mission accomplished.