And now . . . The Orwells
by Joni Abilene
Last winter I was, for lack of a better expression, one depressed mother-bleeper. Really, really depressed. Maybe it was that friggin’ Polar Vortex. Maybe it was life. I don’t know. But holy burrito was I in a funk. So one night I get ready for bed and turn on The David Letterman Show. I hadn’t been watching him as of late, because, let’s face it, David’s monologues have sucked rancid sushi for about ten years now. I hate to say that, because I really love David Letterman. I remember him all the way back from when he was on The Tonight Show and Johnny Carson had him on the streets of New York, microphone in hand, delivering pizza via the U.S. postal service with a cracked-face grin, those trademark circle glasses, and that hair. But I turn it on anyway because, I don’t know . . . fate?
Anyway, I’m numb. I hurt.This winter depression has got me listening to crap music and eating Oreos, and then this magical thing happens, this band called The Orwells starts playing. And it’s good. It’s super-fantastic-orgasmic-good. Hella good. The lead singer, Mario Cuomo, a dreamy-eyed, stoned, male blonde in a black leather jacket sings half the song before falling onto the floor with hips gyrating in some sex fantasy, only to get up and stumble into one of the chairs reserved for guests. It’s totally crazy, and before I know it, I feel myself come out of my mental quicksand. What the fuck is happening? Is it really happening? This is great. This is monumental. No one does this. Then, the lead guitarist, a lithe post-teen in stonewashed denim, shifts his hips, bends, stands upright—he’s a modern day musical matador—and proceeds to rip all the strings from his guitar. His hands are covered in blood. Song ends. Letterman comes onto the stage and yells for ‘more, more’ which they can’t do because the strings are broken, and so Shaffer and his band pick up the song and then Paul himself—good ole freakin’ Paul—comes out from behind his magical mystical electric organ and starts gyrating on the floor in an obvious impression of Cuomo, who by now has reached peak mode of the acid trip. In the meantime you can see that all of The Orwells are freaking out; the lead guitarist (Matt O’Keefe) is pissed because he thinks he’s being ridiculed. But what he couldn’t see was that it was actually a thing called awe. What do you do when you see innovation? You laugh, you make fun. Because it’s so fucking awesome that you can’t make sense of it.
It was one of the greatest TV moments I’ve ever witnessed in my life, and that’s not a lie. That’s not an exaggeration. It was The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show greatness, which is ironic as Letterman films on Sullivan’s old soundstage.
I knew after watching their performance they would not only become my favorite new band, but a favorite for life. Like Bob Dylan, and Van Morrison and Billie Holiday. Forever.
So let’s get to their album. Disgraceland. It’s every bit as good as their performance that winter night because it carries the same raw emotion, destruction, truth, heartbreak, rebellion. I’ve listened to it many times now and it never grows old. In fact, it gets better. Why isn’t it on the radio? Why aren’t they on Rolling Stone? What the fuck is wrong with the music industry?
I’ll tell you what’s wrong. We’re afraid. We’re so afraid of greatness. Of good songwriting. We think there’s a trick to it, or maybe witchcraft. We don’t believe it. We don’t understand it.
So we ignore it.
First track. Southern Comfort. When I hear the drum intro for this song I have to fight the urge to get up and dance. It’s infectious and brilliant. And then come the lyrics, which are careless bad boy verbiage that mean nothing, but make you feel so damn good. Drink by drink/ I think and think/and why don’t you hang with me this weekend/ I can’t walk/ and I can’t dance/ give me a smile and then/take off your pants . . . It may not be Shakespeare, but it’s fun.
The Righteous One begins with a bell-like guitar and a surreal, reverb-filled vocal by Mario which quickly descends into rock. It’s a strange song, but effective. Smoke in the air/I don’t have a care/double, double, double, double dare/ falling down the stairs. He’s speaking about danger, not just the danger in his actions, but in society telling him how to act and even little meaningless things like how he should wear his hair. He’s exceedingly defiant and sings with a haughty, smarmy tone. It’s pure rebellion in musical expression. No one’s going to tell Mario what to do. He’s got his own ideas. And he just might do a 180 if you persist, and then you’ll be sorry.
Third song. Dirty Sheets. Can we say Jim Morrison? I don’t mean that in a bad way. It’s fantastic. It’s beautiful. If Cuomo has had any sort of fascination with the aforementioned singer, it’s no detriment to us. It’s pure mastery of a long-lost form: the psychedelic rock vocal with no holds barred and all gut. I will defend Mario to the grave—that boy can sing. He doesn’t need to emulate anyone. But the fact that Jim Morrison comes out of his flaxen-haired skull just makes me so damn happy. Adding to that, it’s a great song. The guitar and bass both have an infectious, addictive quality. Meaning, you’ll be humming it long after. Dirty Sheets is about sex. Or aftersex. Being horny. Going back to the Morrison reference, you could compare the overall feel to LA Woman. But mostly it’s about being horny. Sex, sex, sex.
Bathroom Tile Blues. I can’t stop singing this song. O’Keefe is a master at creating little guitar tomes that are almost words. They have a style and a peanut butter quality: they stick to you. And, okay, he threw in a trill. Trills are awesome. Besides, who can resist lines like: Another hotel room with a shitty view/I got the bathroom tile blues/a bunch of empty bottles with some would-be models/ is the best that I can do.
Gotta Get Down is the fifth song on the album. I want to get stupid/I gotta get lit/I want to have faith in/something I don’t get/I’m starting to feel down/come see me in bit/my Daddy’s got a 12 gage/I hope I don’t find it. Guitar takes over, then heavy bass. Cuomo’s vocals rip then soar. But it’s those lines. I can’t stop singing those lines.
On Let it Burn we’re talking about the perils of being in a traveling band. No commitment to love, relationship or society. Just constant motion. It has an anthem quality about it. Cuomo’s in-your-face vocal speaks his connection to the material: How many times do I got to tell you/ and when will you ever learn/ I’ll just let it burn. The drums have an acidic-Beach Boys, Dennis Wilson vibe. I dig it.
Who Needs You. Another anthem song but this time we’re not evading or avoiding, we’re straight talking, and people’d better listen. These boys, boys, have been observing you, World, and they ain’t happy. But they do have a solution. Are you ready? Are you brave enough? O’Keefe’s bell-like guitar returns to wake you the fuck up. Like church bells tolling across the entire land, he sings out to us. Listen, listen, get up and listen. You better toss your bullets/you better hide your guns/you better help the children/let ‘em have some fun/you better count your blessings/kiss mom and pa/you’d better burn that flag/cause it ain’t against the law. This song comes post-Sandy Hook, but it could refer to any recent shooting in the U.S. These boys are the current generation. They’ve seen the mistakes of the elders and they know what their rights are, and what is moral and what is untrue. The words of our forefathers no longer hold relevance. Not if they hurt, harm, enslave and strike fear. The bell still tolls. Listen . . .
Norman. I heard this song about five times until I actually took in what they were saying. Lock, lock, lock, lock, lock the door, babe/ the killer’s here and it’s a horror story/ Lock, lock, lock, you’d better lock the door, babe/ the killer’s here and it’s gonna get gory . . . Another surreal, nightmarish song that you shouldn’t find yourself singing out loud, except you do, because it’s really fun. With more Dennis Wilson drum and a strangely quirky, upbeat feel, Norman is about all those scary flicks where the protagonists arrive at a party, get drunk and then find themselves running for their life. The disharmonious guitar-lead offsets a beautiful dreamy vocal by Cuomo. It all ends in musical destruction. And Christmas bells. Nice touch. Very Phil Spector on acid.
Always n Forever. If you were looking for a song to match the genre—alternative, indie, rock—then this is your ticket. Kind of emo, kind of sold-out boy band. I’d just like to see someone come and try to put Cuomo in a boy band, then the fun would really begin! Actually what this song is about is the story—1960s beach party, drag race, Annette loses Frankie to a motorcycle accident, only in the style of rock. I want this one to be made into a video just so I can see these guys on surfboards and Mario in a speedo. Well, maybe not that.
Blood Bubbles. Ever been depressed? Ever love someone you couldn’t save? Ever felt hopeless, so damn hopeless, and the only thing left to do is to pray? It’s a song of mercy. A song about suicide. Lost love. Despair. She called out for help/ but nobody came/ so she picked up my gun/ and put it to her brain/ she begged/she pleaded/ she cried/ said God give me help/ then she decided/ to do it herself. Aside from the words, which are heartbreaking, when I hear this song I am reminded of something Lennon would have written around the time of Help! or Rubber Soul. It has that kind emotional intensity and rawness. It’s a really beautiful song. And it’s not just because of the topic, but because of the tenderness on display for another human. The love. He’s crying for her but she won’t listen, just like she feels no one ever hears her prayers. It’s an endless circle of pain that ends in sacrifice. He lets go, and she gives up. How sad.
North Ave. The best song on the album. Hands down. The guitarist holds another conversation with us by way of ringing guitar. He’s happy and he’s reminiscent. His chords are sublime and sophisticated. I’m reminded of The Beatles’ All My Loving with its alliterated chords and emotional maturity. There’s pain in change, but we must change and Cuomo deals with this sentiment using gentleness and regret. There comes time when all the children all want something else to do/they were headed to the graveyard walking down North Avenue/tell me what to do about you and we’ll be just fine/I said, “I forgive you when I’m near you,” every single time. And then it rises with intensity, here comes that regret: Running down the alleyway that we took home from school/hand in hand and face to face you told me I’m your fool/one by one and two by two I tired not to be cruel/she said, “Wait for me on Second Street, I’ll see you after school.” Graveyard, old alleyways . . . words spoken in the past. Will she really wait for him after school? Leaves are changing, falling, life builds to a momentum and then you look back and your entire childhood is a dream. Gone. The hardest thing you’ll ever do is grow up and accept change. Those old school grounds, that past love. The same things that I believe in when I’m in need of help/don’t leave me on the concrete/crying by myself. Those are such bittersweet words, from the heart of poet. Life is in constant retrograde and you must change, you must.
Letterman had the band on for a second performance early summer and introduced them by explaining that during a backstage visit (a rare event) the boys expressed their hopes that being on his show might finally allow them entrance into the city (they come from a Chicago suburb). This little anecdote belied a tenderness toward The Orwells, and life in general. The Letterman Show is nearing its final stretch, with the host’s previous announcement that he would soon go into retirement. It was a solid performance. The boys showed skill and professionalism, yet they still had that touch of danger that I find so honest and endearing. And then later, during a redu of the once marred performance of Who Needs You (which was actually pure perfection) Cuomo blew kisses out into the audience, to the world. The master, the lover, the poet. It was something to see. Something you rarely see.
Disgraceland is a triumph. The Orwells are ready. I wrote this from my heart in the hopes someone would read it and realize what it means to waste the sublime. They need to be on the radio already. Someone, please, make it happen.
The Orwells are: Mario Cuomo (vocals), Dominic Corso (guitar), Grant Brinner (bass), Henry Brinner (drums), and Matt O’Keefe (guitar)
For more information visit: http://www.theorwells.com/