If Desaparecidos ever decide to publish The Desaparecidos Guide to Songwriting, the book’s first chapter should consist of the word “extreme” repeated across 50 pages in 100-point Helvetica. The Omaha-rooted band, who existed for about a year in 2001/2002 and seriously reunited in 2012, long ago decided that making polarizing choices would be their thing.
On 2002’s Read Music/Speak Spanish, Desaparecidos’ lone LP, frontman Conor Oberst (better known for Bright Eyes) expectorated symbol after symbol of a shattered, hopeless America: insurance companies eager to exploit, ordinary people desperate to ascend in social class, sugary soda temporarily filling emotional holes, municipal bodies happily bulldozing natural scenery to make more convenience stores. Oberst is extremely judgmental—of both himself and others—and extremely bitter. In line with his whisper/scream vocal dynamic, the group’s DIY punk/prickly post-hardcore oscillates between extremely despondent and extremely furious, as if the music is intent on having an emotional breakdown and could feasibly crack in either direction. In Desaparecidos’ world, wounds are meant to be picked and picked and picked, and that’s what makes them so thrilling. They have zero reservations about painting hopelessly grim pictures and doing whatever they can to embed them into your skull.
One adjective that has little business being attached to Desaparecidos is “happy.” On record, these guys barely receive enough sunshine to make it through the week. It’s jarring and bizarre, then, that guitarist Denver Dalley compared the resuscitated band to the Kids in the Hall in an interview with website Rock Candy last year. “We’re all just kinda goofy people,” the 31-year-old guitarist affirms now. “We take the music very seriously, and it’s very serious content, but those are the two byproducts of us being in a room. There’s the part of us that couldn’t be more riled up and feisty about these issues, but at the same time, we like to joke with each other and just kind of have fun with it. When we’re not actually playing the songs, we like to crack each other up and be like little kids, but then the moment we start playing, we snap into that.”
The dichotomy is plausible if you give it a moment’s thought, and that joy occasionally materializes on the band’s first fresh songs in years. “The Left is Right,” for example, rides on an unspeakably intense, albeit relatively upbeat, riff. Oberst’s lyrics championing progressive ideology and idealistic protests still emphasize desperation and ruin (“We’re doomed” is the song’s last line), but it’s still easy to get the idea that Desaparecidos are a band psyched to be active, loud and uncompromising again. “Ultimately, we just got back together because schedules were right, and the timing was right, and we just wanted to, but yeah, there’s a lot of things going on right now that [we’d] love to comment on,” Dalley says. “I think there’s a lot of wonderful music out there that is lacking content lyrically. I remember as a kid when I’d hear a song that made me want to go and learn about that issue or look something up. One of the best things that you can do with a song is not be preachy, but educate or bring an issue back up.”
Sat., Feb. 23, 8pm. Sold out. With Joyce Manor. Union Transfer, 1026 Spring Garden St. 215.232.2100. utphilly.com
PW's Music Issue 2014