First Listen: The Districts, 'A Flourish And A Spoil...
Listen to The Districts' A Flourish and A Spoil streaming now via WFUV and NPR Music before the album's release on February 10.
Countless bands perform a variation on the medium-uptempo edge-of-rage eruption perfected by the likes of the Pixies and Green Day. It's become so ubiquitous, you almost don't have to listen: It's possible to get a headline-news sense of the song without fully apprehending the words. The spike in the guitar attack and the rawness of the vocal help telegraph the outline of a narrative: Here we are in the aftermath of a relationship in turmoil. Trust is broken. Someone's been wronged. Wounds are fresh.
Listen in that casual way to "Young Blood," from The Districts' fast and furious second album A Flourish And A Spoil, and you might miss the genius in it. The guitar framework is straight out of the indie-rock parts bin; from a distance, Rob Grote's snarled words run together into a 90-proof blur.
There's work to do to get the gist, but it's worth it. Grote begins one verse by fitting carefully remembered strands of a painful conversation into the common rock cadence:
My ears ringing
"Think I'd be better off blind," she said,
"So that I won't picture it."
What comes next is an odd pivot. It could be a continuation of what the girl was saying, or, perhaps, an unsparing self-assessment: "I've yet to grow patient, I've yet to grow kind." Then, after a tense interlude, there's a phrase Grote repeats, with vocal-cord-shredding intensity, until it sounds like an epitaph:
It's a long way down from the top to the bottom
It's a long way back to a high from where I am
That last phrase is about as declarative as Grote gets. He rarely spells stuff out; you have to stitch together the story yourself using his inflections, his word-jumble asides and his sharp, wistful images, which hang unsettlingly in the air. But as the epic "Young Blood" unfolds, the circumstances become less important than their impact anyway. It's clear that Grote is fully engaged in measuring this particular collapse, surveying the considerable damage to his psyche. By the way he sings, we come to understand where he is, in that unpleasant near-bottoming-out place where there's further to fall. We don't simply recognize it intellectually so much as feel it, because we've been in the middle of it.
Much of A Flourish And A Spoil is disarming like that: The Districts' cathartic rock music rages in familiar ways, with an unexpectedly devastating twist of the knife every now and then. The music is proudly sloppy and artfully bloodthirsty, but it's never just monochromatic brute-force fury: In "Sing The Song," Grote's ceiling-scraping falsetto sits alongside a pealing, challengingly dissonant guitar array, yielding music that's thick and tense. When the quiet returns, it provides a welcome contrast to that full-throttle roar; this band savors the highs, lows and every permutation of ramp-up and ramp-down in between.
Grote seizes each of these musical cues for dramatic effect. He sings with an unruly abandon that screams detachment and doesn't care if it's not pretty or perfect. But his songs often require more from him: When he's not dwelling on the affair (overall, there's more about the spoil than the flourish), he's pondering what it means to be ambitious, to be a reliable friend, to shake off all that is straitlaced and confining in the culture. Sometimes he's a lost soul, sometimes a misty-eyed romantic; in several songs, he expresses the rash busting-out impulse that drove early Springsteen. Other times, he's more philosophical, as he articulates discontent about elements of everyday life: In the quiet "Suburban Smell," he notes that there are 16 houses on every street, and he's "too drunk on that suburban smell to know which one of them is mine."
It's this unusual and often riveting juxtaposition — the perceptive, novelistic images channeled into relatively conventional rock templates — that has helped propel The Districts so rapidly. These four guys from the small town of Lititz, Penn., began attracting attention while they were still in high school, thanks to a scruffy live video of a song called "Funeral Beds" from their debut. The band toured regionally, got picked up for a national tour, had its equipment stolen and was bailed out by Dr. Dog. After more touring, The Districts played SXSW 2014 to great acclaim, sparking the full fairy-dust treatment from social media and accompanying label interest: A record deal materialized just two weeks before the band members were to start college at Temple University in Philadelphia. Deciding school could wait, The Districts signed and immediately dove into the making of A Flourish And A Spoil.
All the elements of the earliest Districts songs, from the debut and an EP with several album tracks remastered, factor into the new work; they're just pumped up, accentuated, rendered with more clarity. Still, A Flourish feels profoundly like an arrival. These guys have mastered a common shared vocabulary, and they're using it to serve the vision of a sly, disarmingly creative lyricist who also happens to be good at sounding like he's blown apart and in a heap on someone else's floor, not ready to begin picking up the pieces. The commonest aspects are inescapable right away. The other stuff, those glimmers of art buried deep into the undergarments? That, you might have to dig to uncover. It's there. —Tom Moon