Album Review – The District’s “Popular Manipulations”

Written By Emily Bennett, Editor-Elect

Stepping into their third full length, The District’s “Popular Manipulations” chronicles the concurrent depth and superficiality of the Philly-based rock quartet’s changing sound.

It’s no secret that the Districts have grown up in the public eye. Four childhood friends originally from Lititz, Pennsylvania, the indie rock group eventually signed to Fat Possum in 2013 after self-releasing two EPs and a full length.

Their resume boasts the likes of John Congleton (who produced records for St. Vincent and Cloud Nothings, to name just a few). Congleton recorded their successful sophomore album, “A Flourish and a Spoil.” For the newest “Popular Manipulations,” Congelton returned to produce four songs, leaving the rest of the tunes to the band to boldly record themselves.

And a bold album it is.

Totaling out at 11 songs all under five minutes, you can’t help but juxtapose this album with their 2013 “Telephone” album, which boasted 13 songs, all ranging anywhere from two to six minutes apiece.

Call it what you want – growing up, finding their individualized sound apart from their influences – this album is an attempt to reflect growth of some flavor.

Fronted by more than slightly manic Rob Grote, “Popular Manipulations” is spilling over with desperate vocal layers, thundering cymbals and general grandeur — a relatively sharp contrast from the band’s varying tastes and sounds, which over the years have ranged from roots rock to garage rock to this new influence of the early 2000s NYC scene.

While this sounds promising, Grote’s execution seems more like a regression back into that place of immaturity than it does progression. A lot of these songs get lost in the mix, drowned out by reverbed vocals. “Point” and “Capable” are nearly erasable from the list.

It’s undeniable that some songs soar – “If Before I Wake” provides a swirling, dynamic-driven start to the album. “Airplane” and “Fat Kiddo” remind us of the Old Districts with some added studio sheen.

But some songs lose their appeal by the three-minute mark, falling off into repeated choruses that seem too simple for the band that always chose songwriting over style. Something the Districts never deprived anyone of was a tasty hook. The verses, almost cut in half in comparison to the rest of their discography, are less wordy but considerably more disconnected – in a fashion that feels like trying way too hard. Grote belts the opening lines of pseudo-ballad “Salt” with “Little birdy with the broken wing / Why does it taste like salt? / I could keep you company while it heals / But would you try to break my heart?”

“Capable” transcends the ambiguous or confusing lyricism, by chronicling a divorce, but gets lost in the synthetic pomp of the rest of the album.

For an ex-garage band, Grote’s voice is given an especially high place in the mix, which wouldn’t be a problem if it were the old Rob at the microphone – the slurred words, youthful, raspy, probably-drunk Rob would have given us something to feel and think and probably sway to.  Grote’s always had a crooner quality, but he’s trying his hardest to be zombie-Robert Smith and Brandon Flowers and it just doesn’t feel genuine.

“Violet” had the potential to leave its mark – possessing distinct lyrics that explore the possessive nature of relationships, delving into the complications that company dependency and intimacy.

“Why Would I Wanna Be” begins with a much softer, acoustic-driven dynamic but quickly turns into another outlet for Grote’s layers of multi-tracked vocals – a combo that feels like oil and water, and not in a necessarily good way.

This album leaves you longing for the days of Grote’s vocal irreverence combined with his voodoo-esque ability to control his band with his guitar. That’s what set this band apart – because, come on, they’re four white guys in a rock band from Philly.

Even though “Airplane” sits towards the middle of “Popular Manipulations,” it would have been more fitting to conclude the junior album. “Engines fail sometimes my dear.” So do albums.