Reviews

Read Music / Speak Spanish

02/14/2002 | LA times | Live Show Preview
There's something going on in Omaha, and judging by the fever pitch at which the band Desaparecidos describes it in the new album "Read Music/Speak Spanish," it's something you need to know about.

It's about urban sprawl and loss of a community's character, about creeping uniformity and people trapped in suburban houses staring down an empty future.

The song "Greater Omaha" describes the inexorable march of the franchises ("I have been driving now for 100 blocks, saw 50 Kum and Go's, 60 parking lots"). Supplementing its aerial views, the group (which plays the Troubadour tonight and the Glass House on Friday) also goes inside those homes like a documentary crew. "I would start an argument but you can barely even talk," one character says to her husband, summarizing the stressed-out, alienated lives being played out in this new wasteland.

"There's a major underlying idea as you grow up that you need to just save your money and get that affordable housing at the edge of town where you're away from the city where all the crime happens or whatever," says Conor Oberst, the band's leader and lyricist. "I don't really feel like I'm saying anything new or that isn't pretty obvious to anyone that would consider what living in this way would do to someone."

Maybe not, but few have propelled these observations with such a brutal kick. As if compelled to spread their warning before they, too, are swamped by outside forces, the quintet mounts a headlong rush of rock that's hard and heavy, but also tuneful and spiked with guitar hooks. It pushes Oberst's voice to a shredded scream, and is made dense and relentless with layers of dialogue and other sounds that don't permit an instant of silence through the album's concentrated 31 minutes.

It's hard to say which is more surprising, having an album this urgent and confident from a rookie band, or having an album this enraged and outer-directed from a principal songwriter known for quiet introspection. Even though Oberst turns 22 today, he's been writing and performing since age 13, and has been a cult hero in indie-rock circles for years as the leader of the collective Bright Eyes, which has released three albums and two EPs.

Bright Eyes associates Ian McElroy (keyboards) and Matt Baum (drums) are part of Desaparecidos (named for the "disappeared" dissidents of Argentina, to indicate the band's role as social critic), along with bassist Landon Hedges and the group's main music composer, guitarist Denver Dalley.

They formed as a casual teaming last year, quickly got more serious and recorded "Read Music/Speak Spanish," which came out this week on the Saddle Creek label.

While the album's social studies use the specifics of their hometown situation (the artwork even reproduces a city planning department report on a housing development), its commentary resonates through an entire stratum of contemporary America--mid-sized cities whose young adults were forged in the high-pressure 1980s.

"I guess it's just living, and there's something sad about it to me" says Oberst. "It's just the way it is. I don't look down on people that do that. It's just kind of sad that people feel trapped in it and can't live out what they really want to do because they feel pressure from their family and their own desires to acquire property. It's the reverse of what I see as important in my life. I'd much rather trade, like driving a [crummier] car to [have] more time to walk around outside or whatever.... To me it's like, 'God, you're wasting your time, get to what's important.'"


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