San Francisco – ‘A routine malaise’: It’s one of the most basic, often unrecognized human emotions. We all get bored, we all feel unsatisfied, we all wish for prospects to make our lives grander.
One of the most popular indie songs of the past decade—Grizzly Bear’s “Two Weeks”—utilizes the phrase within the first two lines, yet it flies under the radar, almost like the feeling itself. Pennsylvania’s The Districts have opened up the heart of such general dissatisfaction, and in doing so have written and recorded a gorgeous ten-track album that is rational, relatable, and honest in its exposure of the partial oblivion many of us deal with every day.
After releasing a self-titled EP at the beginning of last year, The Districts—consisting of vocalist/guitarist Rob Grote, bassist Conor Jacobus, drummer Braden Lawrence, and guitarist Pat Cassidy (who replaced guitarist Mark Larson)—have painted a startlingly realistic portrait of disinterest and dissolution, using their hometown of Lititz, Pennsylvania as both a backdrop and a vehicle that drives the overall narrative of A Flourish And A Spoil forward. Lititz, in the heart of Pennsylvania’s Amish country, is a town that straddles the rather expansive gap of rural landscape between Philadelphia and the state’s capital of Harrisburg. While many of the album’s songs delve into issues the majority of listeners can relate to (in some way or another)—including failed relationships, insecurity, and addiction—the underlying tone of the album is a concrete foundation built on bitter despair, yet it is done so poetically and with such admirable fervor that it has the ability to feel and sound refreshingly empowering to anyone who listens to it.
The album opens with “4th & Roebling,” which starts out fairly soft but then abruptly flares up into a frenzy in which the ‘narrator’ dissolves into a state of frantic insecurity, trying to decipher the reasons behind the choices he makes (‘I’m trying to find the right word/I ain’t the same anymore’). This sort of discomfort carries over into “Peaches,” which is a lyrically breathtaking piece. “Peaches” takes the concept of nostalgia and turns it on its head: rather than waxing philosophical about the envious freedom of days gone by, Grote’s vocals quiver with bitter images of the past that ache with discouragement inflicted upon a youthful version of himself, while Cassidy’s guitar wails like a tantrum in the background. “Hounds” is similarly enchanting, yet altogether gloomy at the same time. The arrangement of the song boasts Pinkerton-like riffs and percussion, with the same sort of droopy listlessness that Rivers was so fond of during that era of his career. The lyrics hint at a struggle with addiction and symptomatic addiction, as do the blurry dissonance of the instrumentation and the erratic nature of the melody.
A couple of tracks on the album are noticeably gentler, such as the mournful “Suburban Smell,” which captures the entire essence of the album in a brief two minutes and forty-five seconds. One can easily compare this to the semi-famous track “Little Boxes” by Malvina Reynolds—popular for being the theme song to the show Weeds—but with a modern twist. The acoustic “Suburban Smell” illustrates the bland nature of suburban life through descriptions of cookie-cutter architecture and unnecessary homogeneity (‘Which one is mine? I can’t tell’), but also explores the current state of affairs in terms of class, wealth, and the demise of American optimism. “Bold” plays with more abstract orchestration including synthetic beats and reverberated, shrieking guitar, which eventually evolves into a thrashing cacophony of analog-driven bliss built from rougher riffs and the most forceful percussion on the record. There is an interesting theme of the color violet that permeates the lyrics of this song, perhaps helping to bridge the gap between past and present, despair and happiness; seeing as the color itself is said to represent a crossroads between strength/energy (red) and spirituality (blue).
The two longest songs come at the end: “Young Blood” and “6 AM.” The former—at more than eight minutes long—grows and matures; slowly at first, and then rather suddenly towards the end, much like the abrupt—often volatile—growth of a young person (an adolescent perhaps), lashing out into fits of furious expression as the need arises. At the end, the same line is repeated several times: ‘It’s a long way down from the top to the bottom/It’s a long way back to a high from where I am.’ “6 A.M.” closes the album with a carried-over detachment and a rather palpable echo of a lost sense of self, as the gentle vocals are distorted through a filter of fuzziness that rises only just above the rhythmic strumming of an acoustic guitar, fitting the appropriately repeated sentiment of ‘All we are is all we are and still I will become.’
A Flourish And A Spoil at times feels a little more dramatic than necessary, yet on the other hand, some tracks are far more guarded, leaving the listener in an uncomfortable place between understanding and confusion…but maybe that’s what they were going for. It’s perfectly natural for somebody—anybody—to feel lost and alone, and it’s rare that we feel content feeling that way. The Districts—some of whom are still in their teens—have made discomfort oddly comforting with this album, and in doing so allow their listeners to embrace such vexations in a healthy, almost therapeutic fashion.