The natives are restless in Omaha. With their Great Plains indie-rock empire well in hand, the luminaries of Nebraska's Saddle Creek records are turning their attention outward to the problems and hypocrisies afflicting this country and its questionable leadership.
Leading the charge is Conor Oberst. To do so, Saddle Creek poster boy and resident heartthrob Oberst has torn himself away from the songs of heartbreak and bipolar obsessiveness that have marked his work as Bright Eyes and brought himself back to his emo-rock roots with a new band called Desaparecidos. Joining him are four other cogs in the Omaha scene: guitarist Denver Dalley, bassist-vocalist Landon Hedges, keyboard player Ian McElroy and drummer Matt Baum. The result is their debut album, Read Music/Speak Spanish, an engaging piece of push-pull riffage that swings wildly from raw-throated discontent to wistful regret. Saddle Creek has gotten everybody's attention with the success of Bright Eyes, Cursive and New Wave modsters the Faint; now Desaparecidos are here to run with it, and maybe even piss some people off in the process.
Lyrics in point: "In the computer's blue glare, the bombs burst in the air/There was a city once, now nothing is there/Our freedom comes at their expense/It makes sense does it?"
Desaparecidos with Lucy Loves Schroeder and Vena Cava
Rubber Gloves Rehearsal Studios
"I say in all our interviews and stuff that we're all extremely pro-American," a suddenly defensive Dalley says over the phone the morning after the tour's opening night in Nashville. "We did write these songs [and lead single in question "The Happiest Place on Earth"] before the attacks. So many artists changed their releases and movies and songs...like the Strokes took 'New York City Cops' off their album...Kind of like how people are refusing to live in fear, we're not going to change our songs, even though there are some almost eerie coincidences."
Though "The Happiest Place on Earth," with its tale of military enlistment, is the most scathing piece, Read Music/Speak Spanish is full of commentary on the homogenization of America via growing towns like Omaha that are rapidly developing the requisite urban sprawl. The album is reminiscent of Modest Mouse's Lonesome Crowded West in how it vents full-throttle rage and frustration at the soullessness of the situation. But where Modest Mouse's dynamic interplay sometimes obscures its message, Desaparecidos hit 'em with their best shot, thanks in no small part to the histrionics of Oberst, whose naked emotional shifts in Bright Eyes have won him a fiercely loyal fan base.
"We're pro-American," continues Dalley on his train of thought, "in that we love fields and forests and the land of America, and it's sad sometimes to see it replaced by subdivisions and shopping centers and strip malls...I think that we're gonna get people thinking a little more than if we had made an album about girls."
A similar line of thinking led to the group's name, which is Spanish for "the disappeared." The word has come to refer to the thousands of Argentines who turned up missing between 1976 and 1983 following the emergence of a militant government on a campaign to wipe out left-wing terrorism. After the government was ousted, it was discovered that most or all of the missing men, women and children had been systematically abducted, tortured and murdered by the regime.
"It's an issue you don't normally hear about," Dalley explains, "and it's kinda shocking to not know about how many tens of thousands of people died."
Picking such a difficult name also fit into their plans, says Dalley. "It seems like a lot of bands try to come up with names that are easy to remember and roll off the tongue. This is just the opposite. Maybe it's even easier to remember because it's that one band name you can't ever say right."
Probably easier to remember is the band's impressive pedigree. Baum and McElroy have worked with Oberst in Bright Eyes. Hedges is in Cursive front man Tim Kasher's project The Good Life, who plays Rubber Gloves with fellow Saddle Creekers Azure Ray the night after Desaparecidos. Most similar to Desaparecidos, though, is Commander Venus, the Green River (or the Buffalo Springfield or Cap'n Jazz) of the Omaha scene. Before Oberst started Bright Eyes, he was a rock-and-roll prodigy, fronting Commander Venus at the tender age of 14. Joining him was the only slightly older Kasher, as well as Matt Bowen of the Faint and current Saddle Creek head Robb Nansel.
They put out two records in the mid-'90s of understandably sloppy punkish pop that cut to the heart in much the same way as Chicago's Cap'n Jazz. In that light, Desaparecidos seem less like a departure for Oberst from the low-fi, folky approach of Bright Eyes.
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"The bands in Omaha we grew up with and hung out with, and they inspired us and we inspired them," Dalley says. "They influenced us at the same time that Nirvana and the Pixies influenced us.
"I love Commander Venus," he continues, "but obviously Conor has matured quite a bit musically since those days. As a band we might be a bit more high-energy than they were. We're constantly knocking each other over and breaking each other's equipment and everything."
That's not surprising to hear, given Oberst's stage history and the band members' comfort level with each other. They're not even sure how permanent a venture Desaparecidos is, given the Bright Eyes and Good Life commitments. Fittingly, Read Music/Speak Spanish was recorded in just over a week in Lincoln, Nebraska, a fact that belies its precision and keyboard-buffered detail. It's a tribute to de facto Saddle Creek house producer Mike Mogis (also the main man in Lullaby For the Working Class) and to the latent chemistry that exists among the Omaha crew.
"It's got aspects of a small town and a big city at the same time," Dalley says, attempting to explain the feel of the musical oasis in the plains that gave birth to Saddle Creek. "You meet new people all the time, but you've got a common friend, that kind of thing." So forgive Desaparecidos if they don't think the Omaha Steaks jokes are so funny. They're a reminder of the big-city growth that's subtly but steadily eroding the small-town camaraderie they dig so much.