Review Summary: It's a garage rock revival album... and that's really about it.
I recently listened to Black Sabbath’s incredible 1970 debut record again lately, and when I listened to the title track’s booming doom metal riff, a certain thought hit me once again: sometimes it’s a lot of fun to go back to the basics. You might be impressed by a bunch of neoclassical guitar sweeps or a 5-minute progressive rock keyboard solo, but the power of a simple classic rock riff can be just as impressive in the right context. Especially when you get that certain bluesy crunch on the guitar, there’s just something that screams “primal energy” about the experience. And I’m sure I’m not alone on this, considering how many garage rock revivals have come out of the woodwork from the early 2000s onward. Ever since bands like The White Stripes and The Strokes hit the scene, the floodgates have opened for hundreds of other nostalgic classic rock acts to form in their wake, The Black Keys and Arctic Monkeys being among the most successful groups to take on the formula. Illinois five-piece The Orwells have basically gone down a similar path, but it’s a bit unfortunate that their new album Terrible Human Beings
doesn’t really do much to distinguish itself from the rest of the garage rock genre or evolve their current sound.
The general template of Terrible Human Beings
is pretty common for the band’s chosen genre: drumming that’s influenced by 70s punk and surf rock, with blues chord progressions and aggressive hard rock riffs played over it. Mario Cuomo’s vocals could be best described as a mix of melodic mid-range rockabilly singing and a deep baritone crooning style similar to the sadly deceased Morphine bassist/frontman Mark Sandman. If the instrumentation is slightly generic and overdone at this point, Cuomo is certainly the man to inject some life into the album in the meantime, especially on songs like “Ring Pop” and record highlight “Heavy Head” which really exhibit how dynamic and varied his style can be at times. In any case, Terrible Human Beings
feels very “70s” through its vintage production values and washed-out guitar playing. One song, “Creatures,” would feel right at home next to Link Wray’s classic surf rock instrumental “Rumble” due to the similarities between the two main riffs (that blues chord over the motif is basically the same!), while opener “They Put a Body in the Bayou” immediately storms in with a reverbed guitar lead that instantly brings one back to the very origins of garage rock and proto-punk.
And yet, despite this, there’s something oddly irreverent and grungy about the album too. Part of this is in the slightly raspy parts of Mario Cuomo’s vocals, but some tracks bring a transgressive 90s alternative rock vibe to the mix. “Buddy” has the kind of controlled-yet-loose punk rock energy you could expect from a riot grrrl single from that era, and the backing vocals of midtempo rocker “Hippie Soldier” actually remind me of something that britpop/pop punk legends Supergrass might have done in their I Should Coco
years. By this point, you might notice that I’m namedropping a lot of other artists and genres when I speak about this album; unfortunately, that’s because Terrible Human Beings
is terribly derivative at its core. The album is fun, sure, but the vintage stuff wears off pretty quickly and so does the garage rock atmosphere. The fun pop-punk tune “Vacation” may have a vastly different tempo than “Creatures,” and “Hippie Soldier” may be more melodic and textured than the raw punk aesthetics of “Fry,” but eventually everything just runs together and becomes too homogenous. The band remains energetic and committed, but it’s tough to care when the songwriting simply isn’t up to snuff. Luckily, things pick up considerably by the end when “Last Call” and the 7-minute mini-epic “Double Feature” enter the picture. The former has a wonderful balance of fun blues rock harmonies and a White Stripes-esque hard rock crunch to the guitar riffing, while the latter juxtaposes melancholic melodies with fun punkish shout-along choruses.
The most tragic aspect of Terrible Human Beings
is that there was a lot of potential for something great here. The production is fantastic in a cheesy nostalgic way, the vocals clearly had a lot of effort put into them, and the musicianship is on point. But the finished product is just too flavorless and non-distinct for my liking, especially in a genre like garage rock that can be so loaded with personality and charisma. The whole thing feels a bit too dull, played solidly but not interesting enough to make an impact. You might get a kick out of this if you like the garage rock revival bands who are making rounds right now, or if you enjoy classic 70s proto-punk and punk acts; even then, however, you might still get bored. Perhaps going back to the basics isn’t always the way to go after all.
Last Call (Go Home)