Much was made in 2013 on just how ‘groundbreaking’ new teenage pop sensation Lorde was (I’m sure you’ve heard of her, you couldn’t have missed ‘Royals’), but she did nothing for me except induce a few yawns. Her meteoric rise to global popularity had the negative effect in my mind of writing off most teenagers as too early signed, too early packaged and marketed pop idols. While I don’t know exactly how old they are (the press release I received reads “US teenagers”), young band The Districts give me some hope where there previously was little.
Their official Web site and Facebook state The Districts are from Lilitz, in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. As a forever denizen of the Mid-Atlantic, Lancaster County conjures up for me merely one thing: the Pennsylvania Dutch, aka the Amish. I clearly don’t know what it’s like living in Lilitz, but I imagine the reason they started making music is for similar reasons to why Seattle and Manchester bands point to: it’s depressing living in a town with nothing to do, so you stay in and write songs with your friends. They’re new enough – or at least unjaded enough – to write things on their Web site that read, “We write honest music and are passionate about doing so”. One wonders if that is about to change with the release of their self-titled EP on Fat Possum Records, now famous for bringing to the forefront the talents of Band of Horses, the Black Keys, and more recently, Australian upstarts San Cisco. The label’s signing of The Districts last November is more proof of their direction into lo-fi releases, and lo-fi is probably the best way to describe this EP, equal parts blues, rock, and country and folk.
The soulful yet country-tinged drawls of singer and frontman Rob Grote ooze out of ‘Lyla’, bringing to mind the charisma of Janis Joplin, except in male form. Couple that voice with The Band-esque instrumentation, and you’ve got something Levon Helm would have been proud of. This is like going backwards in time in American music, but if you’ve been suffering from a hip hop / oversynthesised pop hangover, this just might be the cure. ‘Funeral Beds’ appeared on the band’s 2012 album ‘Telephone’ but was released to the wild by Fat Possum in early December. With their folky edge and him playing a harmonica, I don’t think Grote will avoid comparisons to Dylan, and not that it would be a bad thing: the Brits have kind of been kicking arse in the folk department for the last couple of years (Mumford, Laura Marling, Stornoway), so maybe it’s time some Americans showed up to the party. You can tell The Districts are going to be a good band live just from the last minute and a half of this track, when the band have at it as Grote wails, “I hate to say I love you / but oh, goddamn I love you, you know I do / but you’re gone away, gone away, gone away”.
The rest of the EP is kind of music you’d hope to find at a honky-tonk dive. Heck, EP opener ‘Rocking Chair’ has the soon to be immortal lines, “Things ain’t what they used to be, I’ve got this flickering heart set out after me / If my mind was a poem, I burned it up long before / And if I drink some more, I think I might drown / Slip into silence as my heart it burns out / I’ll find the devil inside me and I’ll nail him back down.” What brilliance. But wait, don’t get lost in a haze of Jack Daniels yet. The epic chord changes and noodling guitar of the instrumental bridge in ‘Long Distance’ are nods in the rock direction, as are Grote’s vocals channeling Joe Cocker. That’s a far better comparison than Joplin, isn’t it?
However, the most interesting track on here is closer ‘Stay Open’, which is both instrumentally and lyrically sleazy: “Stay open, stay open / To catch my fall. What a shame that I would splinter you, or hinder you at all / I won’t give my love for free / I won’t give my love for free / But please / take it from me.” Or maybe it’s not sleazy at all, but just sheer desperation from love lost and the fallout. Oh, if you could just wrap these words around you…
The Districts’ self-titled EP is out today, the 27th of January, on Fat Possum Records. After supporting White Denim on a North American tour in February and March, the band will be showcasing at their first SXSW in mid-March.