Great American Painting
ABOVE THE CURRENT
How do you react when faced with something large, something all-consuming, omnipresent, and pervasive? Do you retreat into silent contemplation, or do you attempt to match the deafening dominion of the moment with an angry and potent vigor? For The Districts, the answer seems to lean toward the latter. Their new record, the imposingly titled Great American Painting, is their biggest to date, an album rife with strength and conviction even in its most vulnerable and honest moments.
The Districts have always been a scrappy band. Now associated with Philadelphia, the group are originally from Lititz, a small town north of Lancaster in central Pennsylvania. This outsider status—even within a city known for its inferiority complex—has allowed The Districts to cultivate a career wholly their own. Their first record, Telephone, seemed to introduce us to a jangly, rootsy, blues-rock band borrowing from similarly styled ’70s-inspired groups. This milieu remained for a few years, but it was around the time of their third record, Popular Manipulations, that the band started to show a propensity for change. Songs like the striking and massive “Ordinary Day” showed a band willing to do away with previously sketched blueprints in favor of evolution. Perhaps most notable is the shift of frontman Rob Grote, who ditches the howl and growl of the group’s early albums for a more theatrical, Brandon Flowers’–indebted heft.
Great American Painting continues this trajectory, presenting us with what is undoubtedly the most polished form the band has taken. Recorded with accomplished producer Joe Chiccarelli, who’s worked with everyone from Counting Crows to My Morning Jacket, this is a collection of songs that never shy away from their most cathartic ends. A track like “Outlaw Love,” with its thudding beat and grand propulsion, would have felt like an iPod Touch malfunction if it would’ve popped up in the middle of 2012’s Telephone, but here it simply serves as the most danceable in a series of strutting tracks. The album’s first single “I Want to Feel It All” feels especially supersized, slow-burning its way into a shower of synths and a soaring chorus. While this may sound like an awful lot (and it can be at times), it’s a song that ultimately works much better in the context of the record—where it sits as a final-turn endorphin release—than it did as a standalone single.
Not lost in all the grandeur, however, is Grote and company’s way around melody, a skill they’ve displayed again and again over their time as a band. There’s a weight to much of Great American Painting’s subject matter, whether it’s near-death experiences or exploitation, but it remains easy to digest in its totality because of The Districts’ collective skills as songwriters. “Long End” may be, as Grote describes, an exploration of “longing in the face of what sometimes feels like a hopeless epoch.” But it’s also the record’s most beautifully rendered song, one that points at new wave influences while managing to connect the dots between some of their earliest recordings. There’s always been a heart-on-sleeve quality to The Districts, and Great American Painting may be their most full-throated embrace yet.