“They say it’s murder/on you folk career/to make a rock record/with ‘the disappeared’” wails/croons nu-folk prodigy Conor Oberst (aka Bright Eyes) on “Mall of America,” halfway through the debut full-length of his newest incarnation, Desaparecidos.
If Oberst is his generation’s Dylan — and judging by the packed house that turned out to catch him at the Magic Stick a couple months ago based on only word of mouth, that’s not terrible hyperbole — then Read Music/Speak Spanish is his electrified Newport Folk Festival, and the crack cast of musical co-conspirators culled from around greater Omaha, Neb., is the Band.
The band’s name is one-half casual heresy and one-half pointed melodramatic musical-social commentary. It takes a flip suburban sense of entitlement and a self-assured sense of poetics to cop your band name from a generation of South American political dissidents who mysteriously “disappeared” at the hands of brutal dictatorial regimes. But there it is. The question posed: Is suburban America in the 2000s under Bush II and consumerism any kinder to its young people (and, by extension, people of any age)? These are, after all, the same kids who are so desperate to be heard that they kill one another and themselves by bullet or bulimia as a matter of too-familiar course.
That’s where Desaparecidos (desperate, desperados?) picks up the debate. In a rock arena full of arena rock dressed up as sensitive boys playing guitar for anyone who’ll listen, Desaparecidos leave the emo saps to drip and just start chopping down the friggin’ trees. Where the Get-Up Kids and Weezer (Desa’s immediate, obvious sonic counterparts) are content to wallow staring at their navels, carry out lightweight consumer-friendly tales of faceless fixation parading as love or cross their eyes at the ends of their (dope) noses, Oberst, co-songwriter/guitarist Denver Dalley, drummer Matt Baum, bassist/vocalist Landon Hughes and keyboardist Ian McElroy have bigger fish to fry. Outside the indie-feminist musical landscape, there ain’t a whole lot of young bands making political noise that also works as pop music. Let’s face it: this isn’t the most encouraging cultural atmosphere for dissent, either. Read Music/Speak Spanish couldn’t have come at a better time for planting seeds of articulated discontent with kids who, as far as the mainstream is concerned, are apolitical. More likely, this is just a distillation of what these kids know already. They know the rest of the world, couldn’t essentially, give a rat’s ass about them. They’ve got it hard-coded into their cultural DNA that the personal is the political. So Desaparecidos’ real accomplishment here is distilling that deeply personal, um, vibe, undercurrent, bottling it up, mixing it with protest music and then spraying it all over their ringer-T-shirt-wearing captive audience.
From “The Happiest Place On Earth”:
“I wanna pledge allegiance to the country where I live/I don’t wanna be ashamed to be American/but opportunity/no it don’t exist/it’s the opiate of the populace/we need some harder shit now/the truth’s getting round/each public school’s a halfway house/where the huddled masses sober up and up.”
Of course, mixed in with the finger-pointing is a sense that — to paraphrase that great godfather of American soul rot, Michael Corleone — we’re all part of the same hypocrisy.
From “Hole in One”:
“You used to work your land/fed a thousand mouths/Now you eat their shit for the money/Now you emptied your heart to fill your bank account./Well I should talk I’m just the same/You can buy my records down at the corporate chain/I tell myself I shouldn’t be ashamed/But I am!”
Even when it’s obvious Oberst is stretching his imagination to its limits — as when he sings in the appropriated voice of an overworked, disillusioned suburban husband struggling to keep his financial head above water — the chugging fury and bombastic dynamics of the rawk behind him sells the drama. This is a band that took copious notes listening first to Nirvana and then discovering that the Pixies played the chorus against the verse earlier and better.
But Desaparecidos hails from Omaha. The band is on the front lines of the battle for the heartland — what was once a flyover is now a booming market — and unlike the folks from whom they copped their name, they thankfully still live in a country where they can spread the word about the carnage.
At least someone’s trying.
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