By Aaron Abel
November 2012, the leaves were piled up on the sides of the streets as I left for work in the morning. My company had recently been bought out and I was left with a new position that required me to arrive at four o’clock every morning. You know the deal, the recent college graduate with a liberal arts degree that works a job he’s extremely overqualified for. Every day, my coworkers were like Ben Affleck in Good Will Hunting (RIP Robin Williams) telling me they had no idea what I was doing working there, couldn’t wait for me to find work elsewhere, and that they looked forward to the day I didn’t show up. Through the haze of frustration with my new employer, embarrassment of my current situation, and loneliness due to my demanding work schedule, I found The Districts. Their bluesy guitars and smoky vocals spoke to my current state of mind. Never before in my life had I been so eager to hear an artist over and over and over again on the radio.
The Districts are a four piece indie rock band from Lititz, PA. The band is comprised of Braden Lawrence, Connor Jacobus, Mark Larson, and Rob Grote. They formed in October of 2009 while they were all still in high school. They signed to Fat Possum Records back in November of 2013. They’ve only got two independently released albums and one EP out on Fat Possum Records for now, but they’re definitely a band you need to check out.
The Districts were featured on the The Key Studio Sessions back in 2012. Philadelphia public radio station WXPN, where I first heard the band, used the term “Rock n’ Soul” to describe The Districts and they couldn’t have been more accurate. The influences come from all over. You can hear guitar tones similar to Heatmiser’s album Mic City Sons. In their song “Lyla” you can totally hear acoustic riffs that sound like Glen Hansard’s song “Maybe Not Tonight” off his album Rhythm and Repose. You can hear subtle Band of Horses type riffs in the background of some of their songs with those Country Western Delay effects. The last influence I’d like to point out is Uncle Tupelo. Their song “Graveyard Shift” sounds like a it could be a B-side of The Districts. It’s the same country folk feel, but instead of a post-grunge context, they’re more post-indie. Just swap out some of the distortion for delay.
There’s bluesy, jangly guitar mixed with touches of slide, dynamic percussion that alternates from minimal taps to explosive crashes, and soulful bass grooves that move each song along until it resolves and you’re speechless trying to recap the last four minutes.
In this video from February 2013 the band performs my personal favorite song, “Funeral Beds,” at a session from Hotbox Studios in Philadelphia, PA. It’s gotten decent exposure since then. The song starts with a clean electric finger picking guitar part, accompanied by an additional guitar playing open chords and occasional slide. Next, the harmonica part comes in. It’s nothing complex, but still extremely well placed. The drums start out minimal; clicks on the rims while feathering the kick drum, but still super effective. Next, the vocals come in with this wounded, strained resonance. After the simple doleful melody, the harmonica returns with the same motif. Each verse slowly builds in intensity, both instrumentally and vocally.
Once the band starts to drive the song to critical mass, everything cuts out. They resume all at once with intensity. Lyrically, the song moves like a traditional folk song. It tells a story, simple and sad.
“Cause the plains they took my baby
And I’m gonna take her to the funeral beds to lay.
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.”
Rob, the vocalist, is screaming the words with a passion you just can’t fake. His voice sounds way older than his chronological age. The song concludes with the same lyrics it started with, and once they play that last note you’re forced to exhale from exhaustion.
“These great fields are stretching, taking me oh so far.”
Their most popular song is probably “Rocking Chair”. They recently released a pretty wacky video for it. (Stop motion is awesome.) “Rocking Chair” begins similarly to “Funeral Beds,” but quickly builds into a more rock influenced song. You can still hear that unmistakable semi-hollow guitar tone that they’ve managed to capitalize on and develop as their own. The vocals include a croony tone that’s contrasted with more technical, rhythmic melody lines. The drums drop out for each pre-chorus and re-enter forming a wall of sound that becomes the chorus. There’s dissonance, feedback, distortion, and yet there are aesthetically pleasing conventional elements that keep your interest. The song ends with a great solo that falls along the same lines- dissonance, stretching the boundaries of accessibility without breaking them.
I was lucky enough to see these guys at Union Transfer in Philadelphia with The TonTons along with Kurt Vile and the Violators. They brought down the house. The intensity you hear in these tracks is even more effective live. They’re tight and they know how to put on a good show. It’s the perfect blend of disarray with feedback and chaos, all inside the spectrum of accessible Rock n’ Soul that you can’t help but relate with. The Districts have been absolutely blowing up lately, they’ve got shows all over the world now. They’ve played Lollapalooza in Chicago and are scheduled to tour Norway, Germany, Seattle, San Francisco, Canada, the UK, and Oregon. See these guys live if you get the chance.
Listen to this band while you’re traveling or even just commuting to and from work. They’ve been a standard on my travel playlist whether I’m driving to New Jersey, or taking the train to New York. If I’ve succeeded at this Artist Spotlight, you’ll all have a new addition to your traveling soundtracks – a band to listen to while you’re inside the depths of your own head. I’m hoping their future releases don’t disappoint. I’ve got a feeling they’ll deliver though.
From the Philadelphia suburbs, Aaron Abel is a musician, lover of jalapeno peppers, and avid whiskey drinker. You can check out his own band right here.