Album Review: The Districts // Great American Painting

Great American Painting, the fifth full-length from The Districts stands as a rare creation indeed: acting as a looking glass through all that’s wrong and shining a light on how to make it good.

Produced by the renowned Joe Chiccareli (The Strokes, Morrissey, and The Shins), Great American Painting sees an even more sonically expansive work, neatly organised into a plethora of ear-bugs. The group have certainly ventured out of their comfort zone with this album in regards to both genre and sound, evolving into something greater and bolder.

It’s an impressive feat. And certainly surprising due the quick turnaround from their last album, You Know I’m Not Going Anywhere, released only in March of 2020.

I must admit, I went into listening to this album with some trepidation. Naïve that great albums take great spans of time. Obviously, in regards to The Districts, I was mistaken.

Talking about his inspiration for the album Grote Braden said: “While we were there [a cabin retreat in Washington State] I spent some time driving near all these crazy rivers and the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, and I was mesmerised by how those unspoiled landscapes really capture a timeless idea of what America is. I’d just come from taking part in the protests in Philly and getting tear-gassed, and it felt so strange to go between those two extremes. In a way this album is asking, ‘What is the great American painting? Is it police brutality, or is it this beautiful landscape?’ And the truth is it’s all of that.”

This album has definitely seen a transformation from the gritty Americana-infused garage rock to a more experimental dance-rock. It is a perfect formula of refined observations and pure feeling, as the group confront the personal and political with great introspection. It’s a mosaic of the problems devouring the American Dream (gentrification, gun violence, the crushing weight of late capitalism). Each song decorated with a refined and sophisticated layering of indie-rock and post-punk inspirations.

A sense of catharsis is found throughout, as The Districts invite the audience to hope.

The first single of the album ‘I Want To Feel It All’, is an electronic bop – embracing the synth and voltaic. It’s jam-packed, an emotional explosion full of love, death and darkness. It questions the idea of existence and pain, forgiveness and acceptance. All contained within the fine tension of propulsive drumming, rumbling vocals, and intricately delicate textures.

The ecstaticism of the track was thought up during an acid trip that took place under a volcano near Grote’s cabin. “In Washington I didn’t see much of anyone except our neighbour Paul, who’s a 74-year-old Vietnam vet,” he recalls. “After he came back from Vietnam he started protesting the war, and it was so interesting to talk with him about everything he went through. The night that we did acid, it felt like I was looking at a future version of myself and he was hanging out with a younger version of himself. That song came from really feeling the weight of my mortality, and feeling a desire to fully live life and experience the widest range of it.”

This all sounds great and transformative – an exciting discovery for audiences old and new. Yet such experimentation may be worrying to The Districts fans drawn in by their characteristic brawny and powerful guitar licks and fuzzbox sound.

Yet have no fear.

It can be found in such tracks as ‘No Blood’ – an emotive rumination on gun violence. The Districts were playing La Cigale – sister venue to The Bataclan – on the night of the Paris terrorist attack, the building was locked down as a precaution, exasperating the frontman’s longstanding anxiety around gun violence. ‘No Blood’ focuses it’s attention to the many people who dedicate their lives taking care of others and how that will always prevail: a rocky track, full of occasionally aggressive lyrics and power chords.

Album highlight ‘Outlaw Love’ is a true show of Cherry Glazerr’s Clementine Creevy dreamy musicality. The track is a beautiful portrait of heartbreak, pain and paranoia – “Now you haunt me / Every promise like a curse, every memory like you never could’ve loved me”. It’s a sad reflection of realising the person you love no longer loves you.

In the making of Great American Painting, the connection between the band and listeners has definitely grown. “The whole feeling that the world was ending inevitably made the process more special, and sort of stripped away any of the pressure we’d felt in the past,” says Grote. “It just felt so nice to spend time with the people I care about, to have fun and try to make something good for the world.” That feeling of kinship and solidarity is something the band hopes to extend with the album’s release. “The thing I value most in music is when an album expresses some sort of pain or frustration or hope that I also feel,” says Grote. “I hope this album makes people feel like something within themselves is reflected in the wider world, and I hope that makes them feel less alone.”

Great American Painting is a great reflection on everything that matters – politically, culturally, socially and personally. It’s an epic album, from which everyone can find something to enjoy.

Author avatar
Maia Gibbs

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