The Orwells - Terrible Human Beings
by Olly Haynes
Although their social commentary may not quite live up to that of their namesake, garage punks, The Orwells deliver a cutting account of America’s socio-cultural and political climate, suitably characterised by pessimism and despair. The Orwells seem to have made a concerted effort to mature both their song-writing and sound. Gone are the myriad tributes to drink, drugs and sex and the themes of bored, teenage nihilism found on Disgraceland, their second album (not that those were bad). Instead Terrible Human Beings presents a more sombre, wearier view of the world, tackling issues like the media, the cultural wasteland of the television age, and politics. Fry, the second track on the album starts off at a moderate pace with a bouncy, surf rock inspired guitar lead that would fit right in on Disgraceland, before speeding up as Mario Cuomo goes from singing to howling, portraying the effects of the media on the zombie-like viewers of the ‘TV nation’. In the verse “Billboard topping entertainers / Baghdad that is shitty flavour / TV nation, channel changers / Rob your family, kill your neighbours!” Cuomo’s voice gets huskier and more out of breath perfectly in time with the intensified guitars, cleverly conveying the sense of paranoid hysteria sweeping America in recent years.
One of the most refreshing things about The Orwells is the consistent self-awareness that comes across in the content of their lyrics. On their last album, the rather simple line “from the East Coast to the West we ain’t the worst we ain’t the best” indicated their awareness of their own relevance. On THB Vacation shows it again with the line “what could be a better way to right these wrongs than drinking heavily and playing songs?”, a nuanced display of self-doubt proving they know it’s easy to criticise but not so easy to enact change. The Orwells clearly also have no qualms about calling out other people who lack self-knowledge. The snotty sarcasm that comes out through the Black Francis line “…that band? Yeah I think they’re shit / the way they dress, yeah they think they’re hip” amusingly cuts down snobbish critics. Heavy Head and Hippie Soldier carry a certain world weariness with droning, drawn out basslines on the first and moaning, droning vocals on the second all while Cuomo begs to have his “heavy heavy head” cut off. A powerful statement undercut by the amusing image of it being put in an Easter basket again showing that there is more to The Orwells than just complaint.
The album draws on a wide range of genres; apparent influences include Nirvana (Cobain’s vocal style can be heard frequently throughout THB), the surf rock riffs of the likes of Weezer and the inclusion of a brit-pop backbeat on Ring Pop. Double Feature closes the album brilliantly with layered vocals creating a powerfully angsty hook leading into a three and a half minute fuzzed-up, rock and roll, guitar jam that is so catchy you’ll consistently stick it out despite the lack of lyrical reward. Other notable tracks are Buddy a summery ode to one night stands (they haven’t totally departed from their earlier stuff) and They put a body in the Bayou which lyrically may not be the most sophisticated, but is still certainly a fun conspiracy theory track. Although the mesh of different genres and styles is generally a good thing it does leave the album feeling a little messy and disorganised with no apparent connecting thought between some of the songs. It isn’t a perfect album, a couple of tracks like Ring Pop and Last Call (go home) breeze by without making much of an impression and the interlude Body Reprise seems totally unnecessary.
But, overall it is a good punk/garage rock album, its criticisms of the modern world are not gratuitous and it has an all-purpose feel to it with decent tracks for every mood. The Orwells may not have released anything era-defining with Terrible Human Beings but if improvement is made in the areas mentioned and the band are a little more daring on their next project then perhaps they’ll make an even bigger impact beyond the cult following they’ve already gathered.