The Districts, The Weeks

The Districts

It's not uncommon for musicians to grow and evolve between releases -- but even by those standards, the Districts' Popular Manipulations is stunning. The Pennsylvania-borne band's third full-length represents an exponential leap in sound and cohesion, an impressive and impassioned burn with a wide scope that threatens to swallow everything else surrounding it. Perhaps it's a cliché to say so, but while listening, you might find yourself wondering why people don't make indie rock like this anymore.

The total electric charge of Popular Manipulations is just the latest evolution for the impressively young quartet, whose founding members -- vocalist/guitarist Rob Grote, bassist Connor Jacobus, and drummer Braden Lawrence -- have known each other since attending grade school together in the Pennsylvania town of Lititz. After deciding to form a band in high school, the Districts gigged hard in the tri-state area, releasing a slew of promising material (including the rootsy 2012 debut Telephone) before catching the eye of venerable indie Fat Possum. 2015's A Flourish and a Spoil found the band refining their embryonic sound with veteran producer John Congleton (St. Vincent, Kurt Vile) -- and looking back on that release, there are glimmers of Popular Manipulations in chrysalis form to be found on it, hints of the fence-swinging anthemic sound they'd soon make wholly their own.

After touring behind A Flourish and a Spoil, Grote began "playing with different ideas" in his own songwriting by making demos at a prolific pace. "We knew that we wanted to change some things musically, so we were trying to come up with as many songs as possible to narrow the direction we wanted to take the material," he states. In total, they ended up with 50 song ideas, and so they were off to LA in May of 2016 with new guitarist Pat Cassidy in tow to log more recording time with Congleton, with four of Popular Manipulations' songs coming out of the sessions.

"We have a lot of overlapping tastes and preferences for how things are made," Grote gushes about working with the notably reliable studio wizard -- but acceding all credit to Congleton (who also handled the record's mixdown) would be shortchanging the Districts themselves, who went on to self-produce the remainder of the record in Philadelphia with engineer Keith Abrams. "Something we took from working with Congleton was ideas on arranging songs," Grote explains, and they certainly learned a lot: Popular Manipulations is a raucous and impressively thick-sounding album, overflowing with toothy melodies that pack a serious punch.

The distinctly intense sound of Popular Manipulations -- charging guitars, thunderous drumming, and Grote's searing vocals -- was brought on by a few cited influences, from shoegaze's aggressive swirl to the Velvet Underground's impeccable drone-rock sound. There's a distinctly Canadian flavor to this brand of indie rock, too; Spencer Krug's anthemic, lushly inscrutable work in Wolf Parade and his defunct Sunset Rubdown side project comes to mind, as does 2000s Toronto barnburners the Diableros' overlooked 2006 gem You Can't Break the Strings in Our Olympic Hearts.

But don't mistake easy comparisons for a lack of originality: on Popular Manipulations, the District are in a lane entirely their own, exploring lyrical themes of isolation and abandonment in a way that ups the music's already highly charged emotional quotient. "Capable" finds Grote turning his focus to the ruinous aftermath of divorce, and "Before I Wake" is, in his words, "About coming to terms with being isolated or alone -- even though we have a whole group of voices singing the whole time." Grote explains that even the title of the record touches on these universal concerns: "It hints at how people use each other, for good or bad, and the personal ways you manipulate yourself and other people in day-to-day interactions."

For such weighty thematic material, though, Popular Manipulations is purely life-affirming rock music, bursting with energy that cuts through the darkness of the world that surrounds us. "We're a much better distillation of who we wish to be as a band," Grote reflects on the journey that has led the Districts to this point. "We've figured out how to distill the things we've been trying to accomplish as a band, musically and lyrically. We've always viewed making music as something we're trying to do better the whole time." Mission accomplished.

The Weeks

Rowdy, Raucous, Longhair Mississippi Glam Rock.
That's the sound of Easy, The Week's long-awaited followup to their breakthrough album,
Dear Bo Jackson. Recorded at Ardent Studios in Memphis — a place filled with
the ghosts (and gear) of the Replacements, ZZ Top, and Big Star, all of whom traveled
to Ardent to create their own landmark albums — Easy finds The Weeks doubling down
on a mix of groove, grit, and guitars. It's swaggering and sharply-focused, shining new
light on a band of brothers who, although still in their mid-20s, have already logged a
decade's worth of sweaty gigs together.
If Easy bears resemblance to the raw, rowdy attitude of the The Weeks' live show, it's
because the album was written at the end of a busy, five-year period that found the
group rarely leaving the road.
"We moved to Nashville in 2010," remembers frontman Cyle Barnes, who formed the
band in Jackson, Mississippi, with his three longtime bandmates: drummer (and twin
brother) Cain Barnes, guitarist Sam Williams, and bass player Damien Bone. "We spent
2011 to 2015 touring. November 2015 was the first time we ever spent an entire month
in Nashville."
Those years on the road were eye-opening for The Weeks, all of whom were just teenagers
when they began playing together in 2006. By their early 20s, the guys were touring
Europe with Kings of Leon, promoting the newly-released Dear Bo Jackson in front
of 20,000 people each night. Back in America, The Weeks continued playing their own
club shows, too. The experience taught them how to bridge the gap between arena
shows and smaller gigs. In short, it taught them how to be themselves, no matter the
audience.
Appropriately, Easy consolidates the band's strengths. While the songs on 2013's Dear
Bo Jackson were thick with horn arrangements, strings, and guest appearances, Easy
is a leaner, louder beast. The Weeks began working on its 11 tracks after returning
home from a long tour and taking some time to rest, reflect, and regroup. Newly energized,
they began writing songs at Sam and Damien's home in Nashville, with Cyle and
Williams splitting the bulk of the songwriting duties. The whole process relied on collaboration,
with the full band fleshing out the newer songs.
"Everyone would come to the house, make food, hang out, and play music 'til four in the
morning," Williams remembers. "We wrote 25 songs, then picked our favorites for the
final tracklist.
Easy is driving and direct, captured in punchy sound by producer Paul Ebersold. The
goal was to clear out any unnecessary clutter, focusing instead on The Weeks' biggest
strengths: the elastic power of Cyle's voice, capable of a crooning drawl one minute and
a roof-raising howl the next; the range of Sam's guitar playing, from Motown-influenced
chord stabs to garage-rock blasts of sound; and the interlocking rhythms of Damien and
Cain. They threw some curveballs into the mix, too, riding a lovely, lazy, organ-heavy
groove on the southern soul song "Hands on the Radio" and punctuating songs like
"Ike" with a small horn section. Along the way, they made good use the studio's vintage
gear, finding room on a handful of songs for Elvis Presley's microphone, Big Star's
snare drum, the "Green Onions" organ from Booker T. & the M.G.'s.
"We said, 'If we can do this song in five chords, let's do it,'" says Sam. "That way, whenever
the curveballs do happen, they mean a lot. We focused on the songs first, and then
we added stuff, as long as it didn't harm the energy or the groove. We wanted to pick
our moments better."
Inspired by the real-life characters, places, and stories The Weeks encountered on tour,
Easy is a record about where the band has been, as well as a sign of where they're going.
"I wanted the stories to be real — a little dark, maybe — but I wanted them to be
redeeming, too," says Cyle, who began turning the stories into proper songs once the
tour ended. He tossed some personal tales into the mix, too, with songs like the autobiographical
"Gold Doesn't Rust" focusing on the joy of plugging in, tuning up and rocking
out.
"We just wanted to make a rock record," adds Damnien, shrugging his shoulders at the
simplicity of it all. The Weeks earned their road warrior credentials years ago, but
they've never defined their ambition — or the wide range of their abilities — this clearly
before.
And speaking of simple…what's the deal with that album title?
"We called it Easy because every time I make music with these guys, it's easy," says
Cain, who has spent more than a third of his life as a member of The Weeks. "It feels
good. But the other side of it is, there's nothing easy about being in a band. There's
nothing easy about staying together for 10 years and still wanting to make music. We
have the hardest and easiest job on the planet. But it works for us."

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