On third album, Popular Manipulations, the Districts present a bold and soul-searching collection of rock songs marked by dreampop synths and psychedelic vibes while revealing tiny bits of wisdom, albeit cloaked in vague clues and imagery. The Pennsylvania indie rock quartet has continued their alliance with prolific producer John Congleton, who’s been linked with musical acts as diverse as Swans, the Mountain Goats, Sigur Rós and Erykah Badu. But while Congleton worked closely with the band on their previous record, A Flourish and a Spoil, he was only a small part of Popular Manipulations—the band self-recorded much of this album, condensing about 50 song ideas into the more industry-standard 11 tracks. Maybe that hands-off approach is what made the band click on this album.

As with A Flourish and a Spoil, the lyrics on Popular Manipulations are not easy to understand or interpret, unlike the M.O. of other garage rock bands. Inserting broad terms and phrases without providing reachable context can make a Districts song frustrating yet freeing, since the listener doesn’t have to peg one theory to a song and search for an overarching theme. But often, the vagueness does leave one grasping at straws. The strong opener, “If Before I Wake,” invokes religious references, with lead singer and guitarist Rob Grote painting the image of himself struggling in conflict with the heavens. Grote questions the existence of a higher power, then glibly checks himself to confirm he’s “just a narcissist.” The dreamlike guitar hook on “Ordinary Day” with Grote’s line about letting his girlfriend fall into a “garden of bees,” sounds callous, but remarkably casts him as the hurt one.

The wavering synth melody and thumping drums of “Violet” supports Grote’s current passion for characterizing how people manipulate others for personal gain (the line “I love how sweetly you fall for this.”) Even the lyric “You’re my violet” sounds eerily like “You’re my violin,” hinting at the manipulation of the album’s title. The band unplugs on “Why Would I Wanna Be” with lovely guitar-picking, a wistful melody and a tapping, muffled percussion as dependable as a heartbeat. Grote finally seeks human connection on “Rattling of the Heart,” acknowledging society’s skewed imperfections, singing, “Together we are/ Bent out of shape.”

Often on Popular Manipulations, the Districts’ postpunk, indie sound resembles early Killers via Hot Fuss. The Districts’ “Violet” or “Point” can easily reach the realm of arena rock like “Mr. Brightside.” Grote’s vocal bravado evokes a grandeur pomp and romance that Brandon Flowers once brought. The synth-heavy grooves, dreampop sensibilities and reverb-y vocals are a good fit for the crooning, hurt protagonist that Grote portrays throughout the album.

Sonically, this record is tightly-constructed, with the exception of the anti-bullying song “Fat Kiddo” and the multiple layered vocals on the overly dramatic “Will You Please Be Quiet Please.” The “Mother I’m tired/…Mother don’t go” idea of parent-son conflict simply falls flat. Those same layers of reverb just serve to disguise Grote’s vocals instead of to reveal a tender identity. Despite some misfires, Popular Manipulations marks a new step in the band’s evolution, shedding the jangly rock of A Flourish and a Spoil for a more powerful, dramatic and memorable sound.

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