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 Spanish debuted 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.
"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.
But what is most distinctive about the music is Oberst's voice -- at times a bellowing shriek of pure rage, at others a near-tears warble. He sings as though he were caught inside a psychic trap somewhere between mere desperation and utter oblivion, often sounding jittery, manic and physically pained, like he's being ground between two mighty slabs of granite.
The disc's opening song, "Man and Wife, the Former (Financial Planning)," is a stunningly prescient illustration of the intertwined fibers of delusion, grimness and mindless hope that go along with doomed young love, as voiced by Oberst: "Cause I sold some shit, I'm saving up/We can get that house next to the park/I'll get more hours at my dad's shop, yeah, we'll plan for everything."
The song ultimately reveals the ticking time bomb of doom that lies beneath a veneer of giddiness: "And we'll enroll in that middle class/Get a compact car full of discount tags/If you're feeling trapped or too attached, remember we wanted that." By weaving together the couple's hope and eventual disillusion, the band brilliantly paints a piece that straddles the present and the future, betraying neither. Pretty damned impressive for early twenty-somethings.
On songs like this, as well as its semi-sequel, "Man and Wife, the Latter (Damaged Goods)" -- a narrative of two people who feel painfully alone, despite their years together -- Oberst seems to be voicing a semi-personal viewpoint through fictional characters. But the band consistently steers clear of the angst-ridden, deeply personal stuff. Instead, it explores larger themes like creeping suburban sprawl (yes, even in Nebraska) and corporate chains taking over small-town America. On the bleak but hopeful chorus of "Greater Omaha," the band nicely sums up the endless money-addiction cycle of corporate chains and the people who run them: "Just one more mouthful, and they will be happy then." Baum admits the song has an edge to it that may go beyond simple observation.
"It's a little snotty, I guess," Baum says. "But I think it's more of a 'Look, we know what you're doing' type thing. It'd be one thing if they were honest about [their real motives]. But that's not it. It's all 'Building to make your community better! Hey! Look at this new attractive shopping center we built where there used to be pastures!' I mean, we're not going to go firebomb them or anything. We don't encourage people to do that. We love our country, and we love our city, and we love our state. But at the same time, if you can't talk about the person you love, then what do you have?
"I think it's a subject everyone can relate to, 'cause it's in every city in the U.S.," he says. "I'm standing in front of a mini-mall in Las Cruces, New Mexico, right now, with these beautiful mountains in the background that are obstructed by a...I don't know what that is. A women's clothing store or something."
And though the members of Desaparecidos might be willing to stick their necks out in observing the problems they see in modern America, Baum says the band isn't here to provide answers for what ought to happen next.
"How do you combat big business?" he asks. "I think all you can do comes down to artists and poets. All we decided to do was just write music about what we saw. We weren't crazy about something, so we wrote a song about it. We're not trying to change the world or cause a revolution or anything. We're in a band, and we're out to play music and have fun with our fans.
"Everyone that calls is like, 'So! When should we take up arms?' I'm like, 'Tomorrow, brother!' No. It's not like that at all. They make us out like we're this head-for-the-hills type of separatist group. We're anything but. When you talk to us, we're retarded. We're just guys that don't want to have real jobs, so we play music and travel around."
The revolution is coming soon to a mini-mall near you.
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