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Read Music/Speak Spanish (Saddle Creek)

Wednesday, Feb 20 2002
Emma Goldman never actually uttered the line, "If I can't dance, I don't want to be part of your revolution." The now-famous abridgment of Goldman's sentiment was actually crafted by a New York T-shirt maker. But that minor detail hasn't stopped a host of artists from taking the slogan as their rallying cry. Be they Chumbawamba or Kathleen Hanna, the activists boogieing under Goldman's paraphrased banner usually come to the microphone by way of the megaphone -- picking up music as a way of expanding their message.

Omaha's Desaparecidos (Spanish for "the disappeared") arrived at its revolutionary dance from a different direction: Leader Conor Oberst spent his initial years in the apolitical realm of the heartbroken ballad with his group Bright Eyes. But with Read Music/Speak Spanish, Oberst and his four bandmates turn from the micro to the macro, devoting an entire album to the unromantic subject of American consumerism.

You can get the gist of Desaparecidos' attack from the CD packaging, which features a vellum overlay of ugly townhouses on top of a photo of Nebraska farmland. Inside, the band intersperses its lyrics with an Omaha real-estate company's proposal to bulldoze an agricultural area and build a sprawling residential subdivision.

Together with the rapacious developer's blueprints, the lyrics offer a savage indictment of Americans' love of consumption -- of land, material goods, and junk food. Oberst drives his point home in a variety of voices, from the executive jonesing to erect just one more chain store to the exhausted young husband working late so he can buy a house he doesn't want.

If the songs sound didactic, that's because they are. But God knows indie rock needs all the preachers it can get, especially those smart enough to question their roles in the consumerist pageantry. One of the most powerful moments on Read Music/Speak Spanish comes on "Hole in One," in which Oberst breaks off from counseling an ex-farmer to sing, "Now you emptied your heart to fill your bank account/ Well I should talk, I'm just the same/ You can buy my records down at the corporate chain/ I tell myself I shouldn't be ashamed, but I am."

Following Goldman's creed, the members of Desaparecidos expend as much energy making butts shake and heads bang as they do arguing their points. A fist-raised cross between Weezer and Superchunk, the band uses heavy, distorted guitar lines and pounding drums to create catchy, pogo-ready tunes that should rocket the group's anti-consumerist message into the mosh pit and beyond. Monkey-wrenching rarely comes so eloquently; revolution seldom sounds so good.

About The Author

Chris Baty


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