Still in their early 20s, the Orwells have already released two albums and toured with Arctic Monkeys. Their third album, Terrible Human Beings, feels like it should be the next precocious step in an upward progression for the Chicago area garage rockers; instead, it's a competent but unspectacular offering that's more likely to reinforce the band's place as indie rock also-rans than take them to the next level.
The album's main stylistic gamble (if you can call it that in 2017) is its unabashed embrace of late '80s and '90s alternative rock. The influence of the Pixies is particularly overt, if not a little on the nose (I mean, one of the songs is called "Black Francis"). The indie rock legends' quiet-loud dynamic seems a natural shift of accent for a barnstorming band like the Orwells, but they lack the former's keen melodic instincts or acerbic wit. Besides, there's really not much to wring out of this sound three decades on; not even the Pixies can make a good Pixies-sounding record anymore.
What results are ho-hum slacker rock cuts like "Hippie Soldier" and "Creatures," which is anaemic from the first faux-edgy line of "my friends are dead ends." Not even "Double Feature," the album's seven-minute closer, betrays any sense of daring or ambition, instead choosing to dissolve into a shapeless jam. These songs aren't disastrous — just wholly unmemorable, the kind that you'd hear over the Urban Outfitters soundsystem and continue your shopping without batting an eye.
Terrible Human Beings' saving grace is the handful of times when the band change up the midtempo formula and let things run a bit. Lead single "They Put a Body in the Bayou" has a workmanlike charm to it, featuring a meandering bass line and cascading background vocals. "Buddy" captures the damn-the-torpedoes energy of earlier highlights like "Who Needs You" and is the album's best track, despite clocking in at a mere 1:26.
However, these moments are too few and far between on an album that desperately needs a shot in the arm. With such a distinguished career already, it's easy to forget how young and impressionable the Orwells still are. Here's hoping they ditch the alt clichés and find their own sound on the next record. (Canvasback)