Terrible Human Beings
Looking at The Orwells, it’s hard to believe this is their third official album – second since signing with a major, and fifth if you count their first two rough, raw self-recorded garage LPs. Still in their early 20s, these suburban Chicago upstarts have only recently been able to ‘legally’ drink in their home country, but have been rocking out, writing songs and causing trouble since they were in early high school.
They wear their influences, and heroes of their youth, on their sleeve – namely The Strokes, The Black Lips and The Hives – but they have their own chemistry. They like to play the bad boys (as given a wink in the album title) but years of playing as a tight knit group through their teens, and a knack for penning good songs, gives them a swagger that belies their years. An infamous, chaotic performance on The Late Show with David Letterman (before he retired) didn’t hurt their exposure either.
Another infamous moment that saw them in the spotlight is when they criticised the Arctic Monkeys (whom they supported on their US tour), comparing them to the Backstreet Boys for putting on “synchronised” performances that lacked spontaneous energy. Something that’s pretty standard for top tier touring bands, but for The Orwells, it’s just not in their nature. Every show they just let rip and each time you never know what’s gonna happen. A lot of this unpredictability comes from lead singer Mario Cuomo. The straggly, long blonde-haired vocalist’s deep growl at times is reminiscent of Jim Morrison, and he shares the legend’s chaotic onstage antics, that has oft left him in trouble.
The boys have chops, and attitude, and songs (see Who Made You). Hence the reason why they were picked up and thrust onto the international circuit on the strength of their last album Disgraceland. But as the follow up, Terrible Human Beings doesn’t quite live up to it. That’s not to say it’s a bad album – they just set the expectations high.
They tread some similar territory here, and attempt to branch out their basic sound with mixed results. The opening track shows promise, kicking off all a-bluster with They Put A Body In The Bayou which has that Orwell’s trademark dirty swamp rock vibe. Some tracks fire and hit the spot, like all one minute 27 seconds of Buddy – an all too brief highlight with the boys doing what they do best, belting out a short sharp slice of perfect power punk pop. But other efforts fall flat, sounding like tired versions of previous tracks, such as the bland Creatures and the Strokesy riffage of Vacation, with Cuomo lazily rhyming ‘vacation’ with ‘masturbation’.
Black Francis is more of a bold effort, a fun and respectful nod to the Pixies’ as you might imagine, with a similar guitar sound, and Cuomo imitating Frank Black’s howl and Spanish lyrics. Heavy Head is a rolling number that would sound great live, with Cuomo indulging his penchant for horror movie imagery. While Hippy Soldier pays off for the band trying new things, sounding more like Supergrass with its Brit-poppy riffs and ‘Sha-la-la-la’ backing vocals – though the whole droney, group backing vocals thing is a bit overdone throughout.
Maybe the boys were having so much fun touring and living the dream that they didn’t have as much time to work on the new material, or perhaps the world of major label release schedules and big recording budgets doesn’t suit the band. This album was recorded at Chicago legend Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio Studios, though was produced by Jim Abbiss (Arctic Monkeys), who brings a rich sound and depth. Though maybe the album suffers a bit from over-production; using big budgets to try and recreate a small garage band sound.
Hopefully with their next release the band will reassess themselves, mature a little and fulfil more of the potential they have promised. But if it’s your first exposure to The Orwells, there’s still plenty to enjoy, though do yourself a favour a check out their last two LPs.