Release Date: Jun 23, 2015
Record label: Epitaph
To understand the depth of frustration within Desaparecidos’ Payola, make it through the bridge of “Ralphy’s Cut,” a mid-album rocker inspired by a band friend’s double-lung transplant. That song peaks with Conor Oberst’s scream, a 29-second throat-burner that’d make Kurt Cobain—or, hell, Touche Amore tourmate Jeremy Bolm—wince. Oberst might spend the rest of the record emoting in more recognizable melodies, at least for Bright Eyes fans, but the disgust and frustration set forth by “Ralphy’s Cut” echoes throughout Payola’s blink-and-they’re-over tracks.
There’s a phobia among a certain kind of music fan that protest songs don’t date well, particularly the more specific they get. F—k that. Conor Oberst certainly ain’t exempt — at the height of his visibility he debuted “When the President Talks to God” on Leno, a “puerile trainwreck of a song” one major outlet commented. But from Pussy Riot’s incredible “Putin Lights Up the Fires” to PJ Harvey’s woefully under-heard “Shaker Aamer,” being dated is the point.
First off, yes, you've heard quite a bit of Payola already. Let's get that out the way. Secondly, Conor Oberst continues to show why he's still one of the most powerful voices in the punk arena today. The 13-year wait's been worth it because Desaparecidos once more churn out a melodic, fist-raised-in-the-air political-punk art piece that'll do well to remind the general public of the change we clamor, cry out for and that which we need.There are few surprises here if you're familiar with the band as it's packed with shout-along anthems, mired in unrest and as usual, a perfect mouthpiece for Oberst to wage war over.
Two albums in 13 years is hardly the mark of a high-functioning punk rock unit, but Desaparecidos is a Conor Oberst joint. The prolific Nebraskan hasn't exactly been resting on his laurels, with nearly a dozen full-length outings seeing the light of day (under his own name, Bright Eyes, Monsters of Folk, etc.) since the release of the band's 2002 debut, Read Music/Speak Spanish. After reuniting for a series of shows in 2012, Desaparecidos issued a quartet of singles, all of which make an appearance on the spectacular Payola, a nervy collection of retro socio-political punk rock anthems shot through with enough pure '70s power pop acumen to ignite every lighter in the Nippon Budokan.
It’s easy to assume that after spending over a decade away from a band, the members might have gotten a little less angry. If any group are evidence of the opposite, however, it’s Desaparecidos. After all, with their politically-supercharged debut effort ‘Read Music / Speak Spanish’ being released in the still-fresh wake of the September 11th tragedy, they made quite the name for themselves while causing quite the backlash.
Conor Oberst fans who’ve dipped in and out of his relentless productivity rate over the past decade or so – as a solo artist, fronting Bright Eyes or in the Mystic Valley Band, among others – will know that the guy can scream when he wants. And in the five-piece Desaparecidos he does that better than anywhere else. The band originally formed in tandem with Bright Eyes, and recorded one album in 2001, but were sidelined when Oberst’s “main” band took off.
There is a lot going on in Payola, which arrives 13 years after Desaparecidos’ scuzzy, raging and quite brilliant debut album Read Music/Speak Spanish. That’s to be expected: the group actually reunited five years ago to play a concert in their hometown of Omaha, Nebraska, held in defiance of a draconian anti-immigration law being quietly ushered into the state. New music came a few years later, in the form of self-released 7-inch ‘MariKKKopa’/‘Backsell’, the former of which takes on brazenly racist and corrupt Arizona sheriff, Joe Arpaio.
Between the first and the new Desaparecidos album, Conor Oberst has aged from 22 to 35. If you’ve kept up with his songwriting with Bright Eyes, Monsters of Folk, or his work as simply Conor Oberst, you’ve noticed maturity has impacted his music on all fronts. There’s been a move away from his boyish, emotional lyrics, and his sonic arrangements shun lo-fi home recordings, growing in scope as cohort Mike Mogis has improved in his own right as a producer.
It's been 13 years since Desaparecidos' previous album and in the time since, Conor Oberst's political conscience has seemed to age in reverse. Payola simplifies colossal, complex systemic issues into an "us vs. them" cage match and the Royal We are up against mostly strawmen and supervillains. This would be an issue if Oberst was using lines like, "Now we're taking it back for the greater good/ Goddamn Robin Hoods" and "Freedom is not free/ Neither is apathy" as a means of convincing listeners to vote in a primary election, draft a persuasive letter to their local representative, or go to law school.
The first Desaparecidos record was recorded in September of 2001; on one particular Tuesday, the band stared agog at the TV in the break room between takes as the World Trade Center and Pentagon came under attack. The album they were making was in itself an assault on American culture - on gentrification, failures of local government, and, most notably, materialism and capitalism - and in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, you could have forgiven them for having second thoughts about releasing it. By December, polls showed that 92% of Americans were satisfied by the progress made in the so-called War on Terror since October.
Indie listeners sure love their politics as long as there’s no trace of it in the music they actually listen to. The mere thought of a record that expresses political discord and civil disobedience is usually met with a collective shrug, because surely the entitled youth reserves such argumentative issues for Sunday brunch conversations; having the privilege and the education to actually make a difference, but better to air grievances whilst enjoying a fresh serving of organic omelets with sparkling mimosas. The apolitical nature of “indie” is problematic in itself, too self-serving and concerned with personal success when the actual term is meant to celebrate autonomous subjectivity and humble camaraderie.
There’s something about hearing the guy who crooned “Lua” scream about political dissent. Conor Oberst is a man of many musical talents, and to focus only on his folkier Bright Eyes outings is to diminish the rest of his work, but one could be forgiven for never realizing that the sad-sack troubadour was capable of kicking so much ass. Oberst has dusted off his old punk outfit, Desaparecidos, for another round of Molotov cocktail throwing rants.
Conor Oberst never needed a separate vehicle for his politics — leftist strains run throughout his deep discography. Yet Desaparecidos, Oberst's recently resurrected early 2000s punk project, still occupy a unique and much beloved place in his career. The band's 2002 debut, Read English/Speak Spanish found the Omaha, NE singer-guitarist unleashing a visceral screed against suburban sprawl in Middle America.The ensuing 13 years since their initial split have seen Oberst mellow out significantly, so the idea of a sequel feels a bit anachronistic.
DesaparecidosPayola(Epitaph)Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5 At 35 years old, Conor Oberst has long since grown past the angst-ridden youngster that fronted emo band Commander Venus when he was a teenager, and created intricate (and still angst-ridden) indie folk as Bright Eyes. Yet, with the recent reunion of his short-lived punk band Desaparecidos, it seems Oberst isn’t quite ready to leave that urgency and intensity behind him just yet. Payola, the band’s first album in 13 years, mostly follows the same approach of debut album Read Music/Speak Spanish: Concise songs, loud guitars, and a greater sense of urgency.
Before Conor Oberst became tender indie introvert Bright Eyes, he was part of punk outfit Desaparecidos. The Omaha group released one album in 2002 before going on an apparently permanent hiatus. But 13 years later they’re back, seemingly just as angry as they were in those restive, confusing, post-9/11 days. Though they might cite New York hardcore groups such as Cro-Mags as influences, musically everything here is much cleaner.
As a sort of kabuki take on early aughts emo, Desaparecidos satisfies. But that baseline satisfaction is like a single coat of paint that wears thin over an entire LP's length. By then, the crisp, righteous riffs start to plod, and the hooks, such as they are, haven't taken a firm enough hold of your brain to justify a replay. .
It’s been more than a decade since Desaparecidos’ first album, Read Music/Speak Spanish, and the intervening years have done little to improve the state of the sociopolitical issues that drove that record’s lyrics. American consumerism, militarism, gender politics, and the rapacious capitalism that underlines it all—there aren’t many areas one can point to and say, “Well, that’s way better than it was a decade ago.” As a result, it should be no surprise to hear that the band’s latest, Payola, still has many of those problems on its mind, delivered in a manner just as bracing and energetic as in 2002. What has changed somewhat is the band’s focus.
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