For a band in their early 20s to be releasing their third full-length studio album is an achievement in itself, but The Orwells’ sudden success has seen more accomplishments than just this. After the release of just their first album, Remember When, in 2012, a handful of significant music publications praised the band’s bare-faced approach to garage rock revivalism and, in 2014, it was announced that the five-piece would be supporting Arctic Monkeys at nine American tour dates. Later that same year, The Orwells would release their sophomore LP, Disgraceland, and saw further success following an unforgettable performance on Late Show with David Letterman. On their first two albums, The Orwells demonstrated that they wish to pursue a very rudimentary approach to garage rock that channels the likes of Iggy Pop & The Stooges, The Strokes, Pixies and The White Stripes, packaged within a similar aesthetic, conveying straight riffage and raw energy. The end product was two records that came across as systematised in their formula to the point of sounding tired and stale, in spite of some of the good ideas that appeared in the form of a solid riff or a catchy chorus. I saw no reason why the group’s third album, Terrible Human Beings, would see much of a significant shift in attitude for the band and, indeed, it hasn’t. That’s not to say The Orwells have not improved on a technical level, and this new album features some of their best riffs and performances, but beyond this, the band are still lacking in a much-needed amount of substance and personality to distinguish themselves from the abundance of similar outfits, past and present, working with an almost identical blueprint.
One thing that becomes clear right from the onset on Terrible Human Beings is the band’s influences. The opening track, They Put a Body in the Bayou, kicks off with a simple drumbeat that is then joined by some sharp, wailing guitars and a solid bass groove, which is incredibly reminiscent of Pixies’ classic material. It was only after I had this thought that I realised a later song in the tracklisting is named after the lead singer of Pixies, Black Francis, which confirms my assumption, not that I was particularly in any doubt that albums like Surfer Rosa and Doolittle acted as catalysts for The Orwells’ approach to rock music. Of course, one of the issues raised by attempting to rehash or rework a sound like that of many classic garage rock bands is that The Orwells’ very own idols have recently struggled to shake off the redundancy of their stylings in a modern context themselves, with Pixies being a prime example. The Boston alt-rock legends’ two comeback albums, 2014’s Indie Cindy and 2016’s Head Carrier, were met with overwhelmingly lukewarm responses, as a result of the seeming obsolescence of their attempts to revitalise the creative stride they hit over the course of their initial four albums. Fundamentally, although The Orwells are clearly attempting to channel the early work of Pixies, they lack much of the same artistic vision and exploration demonstrated on an album like Doolittle. For instance, not only is this an incredibly safe album sonically, but singer Marco Cuomo presents few interesting lyrical ideas too, with no effort made to match the inventive inclusion of surrealist, religious and philosophical concepts in a gritty garage rock aesthetic introduced by Black Francis on Pixies’ pivotal works. In fact, one of the most off-putting things about The Orwells’ previous work for me was the childish lyricism; this not being an imaginative use of childish themes like those used by Jack White in much of The White Stripes’ material, rather it merely mirrored the artistic capacities of a 14 year-old daydreaming whilst doodling in a notebook. In this regard, the band have matured to a degree on Terrible Human Beings, with a more developed approach to lyric-writing that doesn’t suffer from entirely the same problems, although the results are still largely forgettable. There are nevertheless some particularly dismal lines, however, such as, “Good boys come in last / Bad girl by my side / Poppin’ pills on the fly / Cold grave when I die”, which sounds like a naïve, suburban teenager’s first attempt at a rap verse. Ultimately, Terrible Human Beings is far too safe, both musically and lyrically, to actualise the brazen image that The Orwells seem highly keen to put into practice.
There are moments on Terrible Human Beings wherein The Orwells at least demonstrate a willingness to be a bit more audacious than they have been in the past, most notably on Double Feature. This cut caught my eye from the beginning, courtesy of its runtime exceeding seven minutes, which is bold coming from a band whose material typically follows a rinse and repeat three-minute formula. Then again, with the song being confined to the very last slot of the tracklisting, it came across as the group’s idea of the novelty song being saved for last. Moreover, the song is disappointingly unjustified in its length, with under three minutes of the track being a typical tune for the band, whilst the remaining four and a half minutes take the form of a loose jam that shares few musical themes with the first section of the cut, making it feel like it was awkwardly attached to the backend of a standard, pre-existing, three-minute song. Whilst I most definitely feel that The Orwells should be more willing to experiment in order to establish their own musical identity, the limited instances in which they do attempt this fall short of where they were aiming. The real shame of it is that, as I said during the introduction, there are some great riffs and enjoyable choruses that pop up on several occasions on Terrible Human Beings that communicate a sense of appeal that should leave no doubts as to why the outfit have seen such success. Songs like They Put a Body in the Bayou and Creatures convey plenty of good ideas that would fare far better with a more realised and interesting approach to songwriting that doesn’t so clearly reuse previous ideas that have already been run into the ground.
Overall, I’m pretty indifferent towards Terrible Human Beings on the whole. For the most part, the songwriting is simply fine, and then the odd good performance, catchy hook or killer riff is balanced out by the occasional lyrical dud. I can certainly see merit in this record, in that plenty of fans of indie and alternative rock would find it a perfectly fun listen, but from an artistic standpoint, The Orwells are yet to overcome the issue that runs with working with such an overplayed approach to rock music. I also feel that the band have improved since their previous release, as is evident in the slightly increased amount of solid singles that I’m sure will be thrown into some indie rock Spotify playlists and see the group to continued success, but that’s not to say that The Orwells will stand out from the other bands in the same playlists.
The Vinyl Verdict: 5.5/10