There are few bands these days making powerful yet honest rock and roll music. There are even fewer bands that are making powerful yet honest rock and roll music that sounds modern at the same time. The problem with bands these days is that they are either overly simple or overly ambitious to the point that the music sounds bland and regressive.
The Districts are a four-piece rock band from Lititz, Pa., located outside of Lancaster, that are making powerful yet honest rock and roll music. Their new sophomore album, A Flourish And A Spoil, presents a collection of thick and gritty rock that sounds not only classic but modern at the same time. There are zero points on this record that are either simple or bland, a debut that this young band can be proud of.
The Districts, who are all between 19 and 20 years old, are made up of vocalist/guitarist Rob Grote, drummer Braden Lawrence, guitarist Pat Cassidy, and bassist Conor Jacobus. They began to attend Temple University before they were signed to Fat Possum Records last year after their first album, Telephone. Making a similar decision that most would, they decided to drop the college life in exchange for a life on the road. Since touring the world this past year, The Districts have built a strong following around their live show, which I have yet to see, but am very eager to. They recorded this album with John Congleton, who has produced records for St. Vincent, The Walkmen, and Modest Mouse, along with many others. In the near future, The Districts will be among those names as one of indie-rock’s captains of industry.
The production work and performance on A Flourish And A Spoil is nothing minus incendiary. The band explodes out of the gate with “4th and Roebling,” which is apparently named after a street corner in New York City. “I was walking from the station just to meet you in the morning,” the singer repeats as a freight train of guitars rolls down a mountain. The rollicking, foot-stomping number recalls some of their older songs, such as “Funeral Beds,” which drew them comparisons to folk revivalists such as The Lumineers and Mumford & Sons.
This is not the type of band The Districts are, however, which is proved on A Flourish And A Spoil. The entire record sounds like it’s punching through ancient speakers, but in a way that feels fresh and new. An ear-rippling guitar tone is introduced in the climax of “Roebling” that carries through the album as a musical theme, especially in rockers such as “Peaches” and “Sing the Song,” a driving anthem dedicated to really understanding the music you are listening to, which is what A Flourish And A Spoil really asks from us.
As always, the hype for new up-and-coming bands becomes stressful for both the band and their listeners when it comes to a debut album, with expectations coming from either side. At first listen, I understood Flourish to be an artistic and outlandish effort that still rocked pretty hard despite its lack of the catchiness that I knew they had in them. However, after multiple listens in different environments, the hooks appear like a fish.
Rob Grote, the vocalist and lyricist for the band, uses unique imagery to conjure up a sinister, free-falling remorse for relationships gone sour, and takes the blame in his hands. Grote philosophizes with clever wordplay on songs such as “Peaches,” where he sings, “I don’t want to write God’s name into my will.” In “Hounds” he sings, “Hounds in my head, does that make you feel right?” through muffled reverb and fuzz so deep that Wooly Willy’s entire face would be covered. As the album progresses, he moves on to topics that really should not be taken lightly.
My personal favorite song on the record, “Suburban Smell,” serves as both an acoustic centerpiece and a turning point of the album. With simple instrumentation of just a lonely guitar and vocals, the song reflects the high school experience of witnessing the popular kids pick on someone who is mentally handicapped. “There’s 16 homes on every street, that all of course lie in the neatest rows,” Grote sings about being a social outcast while realizing the negativity that comes with suburban life. This is reinforced with lines such as, “There’s a party at the rich kid house, but I get stoned in basements.” As the chorus goes, “And all the kids with money laugh, clapping for the retard dance,” he calls them out by saying, “I am not like them” and that he is “sick of the suburban smell” and the terrible things that can happen there. This heartbreaking tale brings these issues up and throws them right in your face. Well, The Districts won’t have to deal with that smell anymore. [pullquote align=”left”][The Districts] are making their move up the ladder of rock and roll’s present hierarchy.[/pullquote]
In his article for The A.V. Club, “Radiohead and ‘The American Radiohead’: Filling the R.E.M. Void,” Steven Hyden, my favorite music writer, said, “Looking at the most important indie-rock bands of the past decade, many of them can be classified as either a Wilco or a Radiohead.” He goes on to explain that after the demise of R.E.M., Nirvana, and the alt-rock boom of the early 90s, most bands either went on to becoming “Wilcos” or “Radioheads.” He says that bands that “play around with American music forms and arena-rock influences in a somewhat off-kilter or moody fashion are Wilcos,” while “bands that deconstruct their songs and piece them together in ways both beautiful and anarchistic in order to challenge the traditional rock band format while at the same time pointing toward new possibilities for that set-up are Radioheads.”
I believe The Districts do a good job of challenging this idea by being both a “Wilco” and a “Radiohead.” On Flourish, they sound like both Wilco’s AM, with tough-as-nails down-home swagger and bindles on their back, on songs like “Roebling” and “Chlorine,” and Bends-era Radiohead, with abstract song structures along with Yorke-ian crooning. They even add drum machines on “Bold” and use the studio not only as a tool but as a weapon, similar to how Radiohead creates a completely different world around their music that can sometimes distance itself from listeners. However, The Districts still sound so personal in the times of crisis that pop up all over Flourish. All of these bands are known to delve into hefty studio experimentation along with masterful execution, which is one one of the reasons that makes The Districts’ new record so modern and enthralling. They are making their move up the ladder of rock and roll’s present hierarchy.
Out of all of these new songs, one echoes their earlier work more than others.. “Young Blood,” the second to last track, is not a new song; one can go on YouTube and find great videos of the band playing this song going back a couple years ago that proves they grew popular based on their live show. At the same time, it fits into the rest of the tracklist like a reverb-soaked glove. “Young Blood”’s runtime (a little under 10 minutes) seems to fly by as you can hear each individual member of the band playing their instruments. The song creates the illusion of a live show right in your living room. As the song grows to its climax, it breaks down into a mess of white noise and theremin before returning at full force with intertwining guitars and a driving rhythm section. As Grote sings, “It’s a long way down from the top to the bottom, it’s a long way back to the high from where I am,” you can almost hear the crowd cheering.
A Flourish And A Spoil drops Feb. 10, but you can currently find it streaming on NPR’s website. The Districts will be playing in Lancaster on Feb. 13 and in Philadelphia at Union Transfer the next day. This summer, they will be making the festival circuit, playing Bonnaroo and Governor’s Ball along with many more, so make sure to check them out if you get the chance.
The Districts have an exceedingly bright future, and I’m excited to see where it will take them.
Tyler Asay is a third-year student majoring in communication studies. He can be reached at TA791988@wcupa.edu.