Orwells' swagger undercut by tame production

'Disgraceland'

The Orwells

2 1/2 stars (out of 4)

There is nothing that hasn't been done before on the Orwells' major-label debut, "Disgraceland" (Atlantic), and the band knows it. "We ain't the worst, we ain't the best," singer Mario Cuomo declares on "Dirty Sheets."

But the quintet's ardent belief in certain rock 'n' roll virtues makes it all seem new again. The band – which consists of five recent high school graduates from the western suburb of Elmhurst, Ill. — is too young to be jaded, and smart enough to write about what it knows. School escapades and adolescent self-doubt dominate the lyrics, and the music sums up their (or their parents') record collections, with nods to the Strokes, Pixies, even '50s doo-wop.

Cross-cut guitars and a heavy-duty rhythm section (brothers Grant and Henry Brinner) pack a punch. Cuomo tosses off clever lyrics instead of over-selling them. The guitar riffs sound tossed off, too – brilliantly so, because Matt O'Keefe and Dominic Corso aren't showing off so much as serving the songs. Their terse six-string hooks keep piling up, and suggest little melodies or songs in themselves. Charisma, songs, swagger – the Orwells are a good little rock 'n' roll band.

No, what robs "Disgraceland" of potentially classic status isn't the band. It's the sound – a tame version of the Orwells' unhinged live performances. The gussied-up production — by respected names such as TV on the Radio's Dave Sitek, Chris Coady (who worked with another up-and-coming Chicago group, Smith Westerns) and Jim Abbiss (Arctic Monkeys) — subtracts the charming sloppiness of 2012 debut "Remember When" and amps up the popcraft, but loses some of the energy.

It's too bad, because the melodies arrive in bundles. "Southern Comfort" sets an inebriated tone. Walloping drums and a guitar hook for the ages fix the top-down, dawn-of-summer mood even before Cuomo jumps into the front seat. "The Righteous One" manages to sound both stoned and raging, as a multitude of guitars rises and then slinks back to the fringes of a smoke-filled "I don't have a care" party. It's not until "Dirty Sheets" that a certain self-awareness arrives, the realization that a basement blow-out in Elmhurst won't compensate for "something missing in my chest."

From here on, darkness muddies up the feel-good moments, and suggests that the road between high school and adulthood can sometimes feel like a minefield. Again, it's not a new idea, but it bangs around in "Bathroom Tile Blues" with a world-weariness beyond the band's years. Even more disturbing are the violence and firearms that show up in "Gotta Get Down," "Norman" and "Blood Bubbles." The cleaned-up music doesn't match the sinister mood, though "Blood Bubbles" comes close, with its '50s-style R&B vocal fighting through a maze of guitars for space. It's teen drama with a psychotic edge, and makes the breezy "North Ave." feel like a necessary, if anticlimactic, finale.

The mood swings add up to an apt summation of what it feels like to be 19 and both excited about and wary of the future. Next time, the band should seek out producers who aren't so eager to rush them into adulthood.

greg@gregkot.com

Twitter @gregkot

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