Concert preview: The Orwells at A&R Music Bar

Andy Downing

If Mario Cuomo, the lanky, blond-haired frontman for Chicago-based rockers the Orwells, ever adopted a theme song, he'd likely give serious consideration to “Bad Reputation” by Joan Jett & the Blackhearts, with its dismissive “I don't give a damn 'bout my reputation” refrain.

“That's kind of the joke of the album title,” Cuomo said of the band's latest,Terrible Human Beings, a not-so-veiled reference to the rep that's followed the youthful crew since it surfaced with the brash, brattyRemember When in 2012. “I still don't understand it. We don't go around causing fucking chaos. I think we treat people pretty good. But I think I'm going to give up trying to figure out why we're looked at as the bad guys of the scene. People like the villain more in movies, anyways.”

The band's latest is filled with the shady, drug-addicted, low-life types for which the musicians have often been mistaken in the past. On “Double Feature,” for one, Cuomo sings of Bobby, a parolee from “the wrong side of the tracks” who at the present moment can be found doubled over vomiting in the alley.

“Maybe it's because I spend a lot of time around that being home,” Cuomo said of his fondness for damaged characters. “I still have the same old friends … and watching the turns their lives can take in a matter of a few years, even if it wasn't going good for them, was weirdly inspiring. You're all the same when you're living with your parents; you can't really mess up that much. But when you see everybody get the chance to fuck up their lives it's kind of interesting to see who gets their shit together and bounces back from stuff and who can't help themselves and seems to be doomed.”

Similar changes have taken place within the Orwells in recent years. OnDisgraceland, the band's 2014 major label debut, the five-piece came across like broad caricatures of suburban teenage rebels — Cuomo, 23, dismissed the album as “a steal-your-parents'-alcohol-type record,” adding, “it's important we get away from that” — an image it obliterates on lean, comparatively dangerous cuts like “Vacation” and “Heavy Head,” with its horror-flick lines about desert beheadings.

A similar looseness infects the music, which feels less labored over, as if the bandmates finally let their hair down and stopped trying to impress label reps or radio programmers, which, it turns out, is something of the case.

“Last time we thought it was more important to write a hit or push the song that you'd think would be a hit. This time around it was like, ‘We don't have to write some pop anthem,'” said Cuomo, who joins his bandmates for a concert at A&R Music Bar on Wednesday, May 17. “There was nothing like, ‘This has to be the album that skyrockets our career.' This isn't our big coming out. We can just make a solid rock 'n' roll record that we're proud of and we enjoy playing live.”

While the band's offstage mindset might have mellowed, the players have maintained the same seek-and-destroy onstage attitude that led to David Letterman looking on in bemusement as Cuomo writhed on-set during a 2014 “Late Show” appearance.

“I've gotten better at doing this thing, like how to write and how to go out and play for people,” Cuomo said. “I'm having the most fun with it now because … we have things more figured out, which happens over time. … It feels like there are a lot less bumps in the road now.”

A&R Music Bar

7 p.m. Wednesday, May 17

391 Neil Ave., Arena District