Album Review: Desaparecidos – Payola

At first glance Desaparecidos, the disappeared, or missing persons depending on your translation, appear to be aptly named, as ‘Payola’ is their first new album in 13 years, until you remember that Conor Oberst is involved. This is one of many projects he has put his D.I.Y work ethic to over the years, but which got indefinitely shelved as a result of indie folksters Bright Eyes’ success and detours through other projects like Monsters of Folk. Unlike those, this is a far rockier affair and is not only punk in a musical respect but also in spirit with its socio-political themes and raw power.

Something of a musical activist, having already started two indie labels, Oberst has also proved himself to be a prodigiously productive songwriter, and the confidence that comes with such a blessed mix of talent and hard work is clearly displayed on ‘Payola’. This is exciting stuff, retro without sounding dated, modern without sounding shallow. Desaparecidos made tentative moves at a reunion with a one-off benefit show in 2010 at the Oberst-organised Concert for Equality, before embarking on a short summer tour in 2012, when they also put out a handful of self-produced singles that would eventually provide the basis for ‘Payola’. The remaining eight tracks are brand spanking new songs written after the band’s official return earlier this year.

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‘The Left is Right’ starts things off on a political note and is interestingly jangly before getting my foot tapping, while ‘Underground Man’ is more straightforward and punky, but cleaner sounding and current. There are a few moments when they employ a more angular sound vaguely reminiscent of Wire, as on ‘City on the Hill’, and closer ‘Anonymous’, but it’s never dissonant and the surprise time changes keep the listener involved. In fact, it’s a bit like hearing all the best elements of punk/alternative rock brought back to life, dusted off and cleaned up for a new audience. The Clash comparison is very evident on the anti capitalist ‘Golden Parachute’, but ‘Radicalized’ has a more modern feel with greater depth and well-worked electronic elements that keep it sounding fresh.

‘Marikkkopa’ was the catalyst single that got everything started, highlighting the plight of undocumented workers under Maricopa county sheriff Joe Arpaio, and neatly encapsulates the various elements of the band’s sound with angular guitar lines, some straight-ahead riffing, punky chorus and stop-start time changes. Sandwiched between two other older tracks, ‘Te Amo Camila Vallejo’ (Chilean student protest leader and communist militant) and the heavy rocking ‘Backsell’ with its double layer of contrasting riffs, is ‘Ralphy’s Cut’, which starts out a little more mainstream before drowning in a sea of screaming and feedback to fade into the aforementioned ‘Backsell’. There’s absolutely nothing predictable about this record; there are some more melodic moments (‘Slacktivist’), poppier grooves (‘Search the Searches’), and supercharged punk tear-ups (‘Von Maur Massacre’) that make it thoroughly enjoyable listening.

One of the stand-out tracks for me though is ‘10 Steps Behind’, blessed with a dirty bass-driven riff underlying a scorching high-pitched guitar sound, it is one of the more atmospheric cuts on the album and is quite incisive in its questioning of the role of Muslim women; “What keeps you covered up? Some backwards superstition? Or, someone’s idea of love?” ‘Anonymous’ rounds things off with an ode to the internet activists and is full of barbed wire social comments like “freedom’s not free and neither is apathy” and brings things to a climax in fitting punkish defiance.

Oberst’s rich musical pedigree is on display here for all to see, yet it is most definitely a team effort with great energy to the songs that help make this such exciting fare. It may not go down in history as a classic, but it is a damn fine album of interesting tracks that document the socio-political struggles of our time, whilst paying tribute to the punk stylings of the past. Superb.

5/5

’Payola’ by Desaparecidos is out on now on Epitaph Records.

Desaparecidos links:
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Words by Edward Layland (@EdwardLayland)

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