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.
It’s a surprising effort from the band, both in liveliness and quality. After the success of Oberst’s Bright Eyes, the punk-leaning Desaparecidos seemed inked in the Nebraska indie history books as a one-and-done project after releasing the Read Music / Speak Spanish LP in 2002. But after Bright Eyes waned in the public spotlight, the band regrouped in 2010 for Nebraska’s Concert for Equality, an event that aimed to aide the repeal of anti-immigrant legislation in Fremont, Nebraska. A mini-tour in 2012 followed, and the ball started rolling on new material from the five-piece outfit. The inevitable LP doesn’t play out like an old band finding its footing. In fact, to quote Beavis and/or Butt-Head, the 14 tracks that make up Payola are kick ass. With an election just around the corner, Oberst and Co. seem anxious not only to churn out some great punk tunes, but to also turn that high-gain energy toward the political landscape.
In “Ralphy’s Cut,” the tension grows in near-helpless musings: “Heavy premium I had to quit my job/Don’t want to sponge off the government but I’m coughing blood.” In “Slacktivist,” Oberst stares down Facebook activists: “Calling all friends I loosely know/We’re a tight knit clique in the virtual/Our purses are fat these kids are gaunt/Every little bit helps a lot.” “Anonymous,” inspired by Chelsea Manning, heralds a new age of activism. With Payola, the second studio release from Omaha-based Desaparecidos in a decade, we’re on a political trip through the U.S. The speed is set for fast as fuck, and its destinations are deemed non-negotiable by Desaparecidos—which includes Oberst, guitarist Denver Dalley, keyboardist Ian McElroy, bassist Landon Hedges and drummer Matt Baum.
That energy is Payola’s best asset. Though its 14 tracks were recorded sporadically across something like three years with co-producer Mike Mogis, you’d be hard-pressed to hear a lack of momentum or consistency. The tracks cover a wide-range topically but with Oberst cutting any and all metaphorical fat, his points rise above the glorious racket of gliding synths and feedback. And like the best pieces of protest art, Payola isn’t just disgusted with the world it inhabits. It’s a challenge, an apathy-hating call to get involved. We see it in the tongue-in-cheek “Slacktivist” (“Come! Come on!/You don’t have to march/You just click your thumb”), but Payola ends in a proper call-to-arms in “Anonymous:” “So we do not forgive and we do not forget/We are legion, expect us, you’ll see.”
Rebellion hasn’t sounded this awesome—or honest—in a long time.