Why is it a band tends to hit its stride with its third album? On their third attempts The Smiths put out The Queen is Dead, U2 produced War and REM managed Fables of the Reconstruction. They are all career-defining albums that many consider to be at least each band’s very best effort, if not all-time rock ‘n’ roll classics.
In 2017, Pennsylvania indie-rock band The Districts put out Popular Manipulations on Fat Possum Records. The band’s third album, it’s a collection of cohesive indie rock songwriting. What’s more, it’s so good that one might wonder why the Districts weren’t on our radar a whole lot sooner. Throughout, there are big brokenhearted peaks and valleys, wrought in a bright and brittle guitar tone that’s sometimes acoustic, sometimes fuzzed-out and sometimes sounding as if the instrument is a hot and hammered-out precious metal.
There are also lush synth backdrops, and the music’s tight dynamics reveal a band with real chemistry — a group of musicians that cut their teeth playing live in front of live audiences, crafting songs from the push and pull of human response. Over it all, Rob Grote tells his sad little tales of heartbreak and redemption on vocals and guitar in what is sometimes a Robert Smith-like yip that’s also from time to time a strong-chinned American yelp.
The album offers moments of real poetry, such as when Grote sings this from the song “Ordinary Day”: “On your own I’d let you fall down/In a garden full of bees/On your own, picking through lilacs/Covered in gold and kicking through the bellyache.”
Sure, you can find occasional examples of the cornball (yet kind of addictive) melodrama of The Killers. Can a band ever really sing about “South Jersey,” as Grote does on album-track “Fat Kiddo” without conjuring an element of Springsteen-knockoff cheesiness?
Manipulations isn’t perfect by any measure. The missteps, however, come from such a place of youthful searching that even the fallow bits hint we might have a sneaker classic on our hands — if not this band’s very best release, the first of many great releases to come.
Hi-Fi presents The Districts supported by Deeper 10 pm Monday, Jan. 28, at Luckey’s; $12 advance, $15 door, 21-plus.