If the Orwells hadn’t been on your radar pre-David Letterman, chances are now you’re pretty hip to the Chicago outfit’s penchants for a raucous live show and ‘fuck you’ attitude. Rolling out their major label debut, Disgraceland (Canvasback/Atlantic), you’d expect the same rock and roll fervor from the band’s live shows to be captured in studio. On 2012’s Remember When, the band’s DIY production was surprisingly glossy compared to its scene’s counterparts, magnifying the Orwell’s potential to bust out of Chicago as rock and roll saviors (take that, Fall Out Boy). What happens on Disgraceland isn’t so much a combustion as a frazzled stumble into bigger things.
Fans following the band’s dissent into major label recognition won’t find much new to gush over. “Southern Comfort” has been a Rolo & Grady Sessions favorite for awhile now, while “Who Needs You” is inescapable on the radio. “Dirty Sheets” and “The Righteous One” still pack that slick and conspicuously sexy swagger they always have. Guitarists Matt O’Keefe and Dominic Corso drive riffs on each track into the fiery wreckage of garage rock greats like The Replacements and The Strokes and come out stronger on the other side.
Frontman Mario Cuomo’s familiar musings on drinking, girls, and sex aren’t anything new a post-teen from the suburbs dreams of, though he’s clearly sharpening his fangs to bite into that jet-set, rock star lifestyle. Fans of Remember When will probably draw comparisons between the dark, arguably unncessary, track “Norman” and an Orwells’ classic, “Halloween All Year” with similar, horror film narratives about making it (or not) out alive.
Lyrically competent or not, Cuomo’s drunk or stoned (or both) delivery has moments of greatness when his ferocity peaks as it does on the band’s best track, “Blood Bubbles.” A boastful roar by the entire band takes this tale of a suicide pact gone wrong and romanticizes it with a ’50s doo-wop feel crashing against a brick wall.
The shiny new tools this type of production introduced the band to didn’t so much change what has become to be loved as the Orwells’ sound, but muddle it, making Disgraceland verge on an identity crisis. While the Orwells long for rock and roll to be dangerous again, their brand of rock and roll doesn’t quite pack that grit. “Always N Forever” “Bathroom Tile Blues” and “North Ave” follow a completely new path, away from the one the band, and its fans, have trampled and desecrated over the past few years. The talent is there, fighting with the “who am I?” teenage mindset.