Spanish Inquisition

Outspoken and a little bit angry, Desaparecidos uses artful indie pop to question everything.

Discussions about Desaparecidos on music-oriented Web bulletin boards -- virtual forums where serious fans can dissect their faves 24 hours a day -- indicate that it takes some work to pronounce the band's name. "Day-suh-par-eh-see-dohs," offers one helpful user at audiogalaxy.com. But perhaps that's part of the idea behind the tag: to force people who don't naturally have the elegant lilt of Spanish tripping off their tongues to make the kinds of sounds that are becoming so common across the West. Not bad for a bunch of white kids from Nebraska, widely known as one of the whitest states in the Union.

Playing a sharp blend of bright but distorted guitar-based songs backed by drums with equal parts finesse and power and overlaid with the desperate, wailing vocals of indie-rock wunderkind Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes, Desaparecidos is a semi-side project with a potentially bright future. The band's album, Read Music/Speak Spanishdebuted on February 12 to much anticipation in Bright Eyes circles, and it showcases an ensemble that seems instantly accomplished -- even without any Spanish on the disc.

It's also a group with a politically charged name: the original Desaparecidos were political dissidents in Chile and Argentina who were "disappeared" in retaliation for their beliefs.

Conor Oberst (second from right) and Desaparecidos.
Conor Oberst (second from right) and Desaparecidos.

"I kind of came up with the name along with my ex-girlfriend," says drummer Matt Baum. "It was just based on the fact the [Chilean and Argentine] Desaparecidos were people who spoke out against their government and then disappeared because of it. I guess we're kind of doing the same thing -- we're speaking out. Except this is the U.S., where people don't make you disappear for that. Yet. It's kind of a shout-out for those people who did stand up and speak out and ended up paying for it. And maybe we'll end up paying for it. We've had a few angry people come up to us, saying we're un-American and stuff like that."

Desaparecidos songs cover topics like greed, marriage, suburban sprawl and corporate dominion. But the tune that has brought the band as much grief as admiration is "Happiest Place on Earth." The song paints a bleak portrait of a youth who, to his dismay, discovers that the America he was taught about in history class is not the same one he sees around him: "I want to pledge allegiance to the country where I live/I don't want to be ashamed to be American.../What can't be bought gets raffled off/Oh God, good God shed greed on thee/Your shining sea turned dirty green from industry/Off the shores of New Jersey." The song's view of what it means to be an American is a message some people don't want to hear right now, or perhaps ever.

"I was a patriot before September 11, and I'm still one now," says Baum. "I don't feel I need to put a flag on my Honda Civic to prove I'm an American. Come on. We're all Americans. A lot of people have criticized us for that [song]. Everything we wrote was written before the tragedy; we didn't change anything because of it. There's no reason to. If you can't talk about your country, then how great is this country? One of our basic rights is to be able to speak out."

Though Oberst is the main lyricist, Baum says the group is indeed a collective unit, a fact illustrated by the disc's subject matter. Whereas most Bright Eyes songs are painfully introspective exercises for Oberst -- laments of heartbreak and angst demons that are so stark they sometimes prompt worried fans to inquire about his mental health when they meet him in person -- Desaparecidos's material leans heavily toward more general social observation. This band has more of an outward-looking stance rather than an inward one, though without the hammer-like insistence of overtly political bands such as Rage Against the Machine.

"Conor writes most of the lyrics, but we all agree on them before we start saying anything," Baum says. "What we were trying to do was just basically not write another album about girls. We decided, 'Let's do something.' Instead of writing about ourselves or about bad relationships, let's write about something. And we kind of wrote about what we saw in our hometown and surrounding communities. It's not necessarily an attack on America or on American culture or even on urbanization -- it's just commentary. This is what we see going on."

Though Desaparecidos's sound is every bit as engaging and genuine as that of Bright Eyes, it is, in many ways, a wild departure from that band's stripped-down, bare emotion. Whereas Bright Eyes grew out of Oberst's need to focus on quieter, more emotive music after two years of playing harder with his first band, Commander Venus, Desaparecidos grew out of an itch he had to plug in again. The music is a pleasantly aggressive mélange of raw but optimistic guitars (courtesy of Oberst and Denver Dalley), rich, loping bass from Landon Hedges, Ian McElroy's nimble keyboards and Baum's graceful but raucous drums. Oberst's years of songwriting -- now 22, he's been writing music since he was twelve -- have sharpened his ability to craft pop hooks into a fine instrument that he wields with the confidence and precision of a talented surgeon. Much like the Pixies or Built to Spill, Desaparecidos has a way of walking the razor's edge between catchiness and hardness; the melodies nudge their way into your memory without becoming too sweet or cloying, and the songs are rollicking, edgy and powerful without the alienation of hyper-aggressive faux-punk postures.

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