When Desaparecidos play Cannery Ballroom on Monday, the U.S. economy will perhaps continue to reel from the government's narrowly avoided default. Our country will have barely sidestepped fiscal calamity, but the world will continue to look on as our "best and brightest" act like children in the largely insulated power corridors of Washington.
If ever there were a time for a clamoring, politically minded, visceral post-punk soundtrack, this is it.
Desaparecidos — which feature popular folkie Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes, Monsters of Folk) and sometime Nashvillian Denver Dalley (Statistics) as well as three of their Omaha brethren — have had a symbiotic relationship with the political sphere since the band was founded in the months before 9/11. Back then, the band took a long view on what they perceived to be America's worst ailments — the perilousness of upward mobility, consumerism, urban sprawl, that sort of thing — with the now-cult release Read Music/Speak Spanish. The band's name would prove to be a bit of foreshadowing — "desaparecidos" translates to "disappeared ones" in Spanish, a reference to people who were arrested by various South American governments during the '70s and afterward, rarely to return. Desaparecidos went on hiatus for nearly a decade after touring for only one year.
"The reason we went our separate ways was that it just didn't feel like it was the right time," Dalley tells the Scene by phone. The five-piece vanished almost as suddenly as they had arrived, exiting at a time when punk rock continued to wane as a galvanizing force. Moreover, as Oberst told Spin last year, Desaparecidos' message, which was critical of American hubris at a time of fervid patriotism, wasn't particularly well received in the wake of Sept. 11's grisly attacks.
In 2010, Desaparecidos resurfaced in their home state of Nebraska to perform at an event called Concert for Equality. The event protested a law under consideration in the state that would emulate SB 1070, Arizona's now-infamous piece of anti-immigration legislation. That statute, which effectively attempted to legalize racial profiling, prompted the band to write "MariKKKopa," a searing, laser-guided indictment of Sheriff Joe Arpaio and the brutal tactics he and his "posse" used to eradicate illegal immigration in Maricopa County.
For now, at least, the days of writing with a novelist's sense of remove are through. Desaparecidos have since released five additional songs in short bursts via the Internet that are just as specific and anthemic as "MariKKKopa," taking on the greed of Wall Street and major labels, and supporting the hacking group Anonymous and the young Chilean student protest leader Camila Vallejo. "We think she's a complete badass," Dalley says.
On "Te Amo Camila Vallejo," Oberst sings, "Oh Camila, you have the people in your palm / They're overflowing in the plaza / Here to sing your rebel song," with clear-eyed reverence for Vallejo's convictions and readiness to take action. The song is bigger and catchier than anything on Read Music/Speak Spanish, which, while undeniably a fine album, sounds more like the sort of lo-fi, mostly hookless indie that put Saddle Creek Records on the map than the kind of cohesive songwriting on display in Desaparecidos' rebirth.
But can politically conscious music still make an impact in today's fractured, attention-deficient music landscape? The number of user-created videos on YouTube using "Te Amo Camila Vallejo" as a rallying cry against inequality in Chile suggests it can. And Desaparecidos are having a similar effect on listeners in the U.S.
"We've been able to see on our message boards or our Facebook page how people have commented, 'I had no idea who Bradley Manning was until I heard that song and I got online and looked into him,' " Dalley says.
"Maybe they start a conversation," he continues, "or they become involved in different aspects of it or a cause. That's the ideal dream. ... That it's not just some song where we sing 'baby' 16 times and nothing gets accomplished."
There are plenty of Nashville singers doing that already. So a bit of hair-raising — here and elsewhere in the U.S. — is certainly warranted.