Early press for Chicago garage rockers The Orwells’ third album, Terrible Human Beings, has either focused on the claim that the band has grown past the youthful shenanigans that typified their previous work, or that they have taken an obvious shine to the Pixies. The “more mature” Orwells angle is true enough, though a little overstated even if the band members themselves agree with it. Admittedly, the album does feature hints of this progression. “Buddy” for instance, the first song from the album to be released as a single, features the refrain “Movin’ on, did my time” before closing with a repeated “Goodbye Buddy.” Whoever Buddy is, he or she is in the past, while The Orwells are moving on to the future. Not too swiftly though, as the song’s narrator does also mention that he has a pint in his hand and a “pocket full of rubber.” So basically, the band are still drinking and screwing, they just aren’t teenagers anymore.
The Pixies inspiration on the other hand is pretty undeniable. Sticking with “Buddy,” the guitars and vocals are a direct nod to the iconic Boston band’s leader Black Francis. In fact, the singer/guitarist is such a huge influence on Terrible Human Beings that the album’s standout track is actually called “Black Francis.” Whereas “Buddy” borders on Pixies-pastiche (well done and enjoyable as it is), “Black Francis” is less a copy of the Pixies than The Orwells absorbing that group’s sounds and then spitting out something that’s all their snotty own. The song feels like a natural progression from the tunes featured on 2012’s Remember When and 2014’s Disgraceland, even if it’s not about high schoolers shooting guns and getting shit-faced. Maybe they’re growing up after all.
Second to “Black Francis” is the album’s lead track, the big radio-ready rock song “They Put a Body In the Bayou.” There’s no noticeable Pixies influence here, but the song does seem a step forward from the youthful noise of Remember When’s “Mallrats (La La La)” or Disgraceland’s instantly iconic “Who Needs You.” Whether or not “They Put a Body In the Bayou” is better than those songs is up to personal taste (if I’m being honest, I’ll still take “Who Needs You”), but there’s a swagger and sexiness to the tune that The Orwells couldn’t yet muster when they were still kids.
The rest of Terrible Human Beings mixes the Orwells’ evolving sound (the experimental “Body Reprise”), Pixies homages (“Ring Pop”), and a few more references to their personal maturation (“M.A.D.”). If the album has a failing, it’s that these different pieces don’t always gel into a cohesive whole. “M.A.D.,” for example, is a well crafted piece of power pop, but it has none of the spunk that has made the group one of the most exciting rock bands of the decade. That said, I caught myself singing it in the bathroom recently so maybe that’s the only thing that really matters.
The album closes with the 7-minute “Double Feature,” which boasts the amazing lyric, “Should’ve been a doctor or a lawyer, should’ve never listened to Destroyer” and a long guitar freak-out that again shows The Orwells can create more than just garage rock noise. Singer Mario Cuomo delivers part of his vocal in the style of a Kurt Cobain yell, and even names one of the characters in the tune “Polly.” It’s hard not to note that like The Orwells, Cobain drew major inspiration from the Pixies and he was able to take a part of that band’s sound and make it his own. This connection isn’t to suggest that Cuomo and his bandmates are trying to replicate the massive success of Nirvana (or that they could even if they wanted to), but with songs like “Black Francis” and “They Put a Body In the Bayou,” it’s safe to say that they aren’t shying away from opportunities to grow their audience. Nor should they. Such a move seems like the responsible, adult thing to do.