It could have been sleepy Norwegian duo The Kings of Convenience, who named their 2001 album Quiet is the New Loud, or it could have just been some catch-phrase-seeking music journalist (probably British), but whoever it was, the phrase eventually became nearly as ubiquitous as calling a band "grungy" was in the early '90s.
One of the finest of the more recent practitioners of the Q as NL idea is Bright Eyes, a band comprised of Omaha, Nebraska's Conor Oberst and whomever else he chooses to record/perform with at any given time, and a band that's currently on hold.
Oberst began writing and playing music seven years ago with his first band, Commander Venus, which would have been just another passable indie rock band -- albeit with flashes of brilliance -- if it weren't for the fact that he formed it at age 14. With that added into the equation, the use of the word prodigy seemed downright natural. Commander Venus lasted two albums, and in 1995 Oberst went into ballad mode and Bright Eyes was born.
Boasting a quavering, emotionally-wrought voice that would speak volumes even if you couldn't understand the words (which you can) and matching lyrics written specifically to rip your heart right out of your chest, Oberst's Bright Eyes songs belied his age so monumentally it was chilling.
And though the music was largely acoustic, a typical Bright Eyes album was so intensely dramatic (and vice-versa) -- songs would usually start out appropriately melancholic before crossing the line into fever pitch -- that the listener would feel emotionally drained by the end of the last track, if not long before. Oberst possesses that rare gift of being able to slay you with just a line or two; to wit, from "The Calendar Hung Itself": "Does he know that place below your neck that's your favorite to be touched? / And does he cry through broken sentences like 'I love you far too much'?"
Bright Eyes' last full-length, 2000's Fevers and Mirrors (Saddle Creek), was widely --and rightfully -- hailed by critics as one of that year's best releases, and by that point the touring version of Bright Eyes had matured into a solid live act as well, as evidenced by an appearance at Solar Culture that same year. Oberst demonstrated that indefinable it, and had the house, which was packed, wrapped around his pinkie -- and other body parts as well, if the girlish cries of, "I love you, Conor!" were any indication -- even as he sat down for the entire performance.
But for all the success and acclaim of Bright Eyes, the now-21-year-old Conor Oberst longed for (at least) one thing: he wanted to get onstage and rock out, dammit. To that end, he grabbed four of his friends -- guitarist Denver Dalley, bassist Landon Hedges, and drummer Matt Baum and keyboardist Ian McElroy, both of whom had previously toured with Oberst in Bright Eyes -- and formed Desaparecidos.
The band's highly anticipated debut album, Read Music/Speak Spanish, will drop on Monday, just a day before the band's local appearance, on Oberst's Saddle Creek imprint (which, incidentally has put Omaha on the map by releasing albums by locals Cursive and The Faint, amongst others, as well as virtually all of Oberst's own recordings, beginning with Viva Saturn). And even though Desaparecidos has been touring since the third week of January without benefit of an audience that already knows what it's in for, the shows have been drawing throngs of attendees eager to see what "Conor's new rock band" sounds like, virtually unheard of from a band that hasn't even released its first album yet.
Read Music is a drastic departure from Oberst's work with Bright Eyes ("It's a yin and a yang [for him]," said guitarist Dalley, seven shows into a five-week tour, "a breath of fresh air that makes him look forward to both."). For starters there's the music itself, which eschews the ballad format --there's not a single one on the album -- for a fairly straightforward indie rock approach, complete with squalling guitars and post-Fugazi angularity, but with the urgency one would expect from Oberst. And the band he's assembled to play the songs, simply put, rocks 'em out.
In addition, the ideas addressed in the songs represent nothing less than a 180-degree turnabout as well. Where Bright Eyes songs are about matters so personal that the listener almost feels like a voyeur even listening to them, Desaparecidos songs are largely well-aimed (if seemingly unlikely) socio-political rants. A Bright Eyes song carries so much sadness you think Oberst might break down in tears at any moment, but a Desaparecidos song channels that intensity into the observational realm, so much so that it sounds like his head could explode if he has to lay eyes on another goddam Burger King.
Some songs are aimed at such un-glamorous topics as urban sprawl and the resulting consumerism-as-religion residue of such misjudgments. With Greg Dulli-esque phrasing and angst on "Greater Omaha," Oberst sings, "Well traffic is kind of bad/They're widening Easy Street/To fit more SUVs ... All those golden fields, lovely empty space/They're building drugstores now/Until none remains/I've been driving now for 100 blocks/Saw 50 Kum and Go's, 60 parking lots"
Elsewhere, on "Mall of America," he takes on a strip mall culture that produces soulless commerce instead of art. It begins with the tongue-in-cheek, self-referential couplet: "They say it's murder on your folk career/To make a rock record with the Disappeared."
Then there are the carnivorous lawyers in "Survival of the Fittest/It's a Jungle Out There," who descend on accident victims like looming ravens. The song concludes with the exasperated attorney yelping, "Don't take it personal/It's just business" to the attending loved ones. Oberst is so utterly convincing in his anger (and his targets are so well chosen) that you can't help but empathize (or, at least, sympathize) with him. And that visual of his head exploding doesn't hurt either.
Based on the album's packaging, which shows a vacant stretch of highway whose borders are awash in amber waves of grain, with an opaque overlay sheet which adds the inevitably impending cookie-cutter housing complex set to begin construction any day now, the album's centerpiece was obviously intended to be "Greater Omaha." But circumstances being what they are these days, "The Happiest Place on Earth," written before September 11 and recorded just a few days after that fateful day, will surely draw the most attention.
The tune opens with the indignant plea: "I want to pledge allegiance to the country where I live/I don't want to be ashamed to be American/But opportunity, no it don't exist/It's just the opiate of the populace." It continues with such bon mots as "These amber waves, purple majesty/are nothing but just backdrops for Disney" and "Oh God, good God shed greed on thee/Your shining sea turned a dirty green/From the industry off the shores of New Jersey." The song becomes eerily prescient halfway through, when it hits the lines: "I got a letter from the Army so I think that I'll enlist/I'm not brave or proud of nothing, I just want to kill something/Too bad that nowadays you just point and click/Swing low satellite, hot white chariot!/In the computer's blue glare, the bombs burst in the air/There was a city once, now nothing is there."
Though he agrees the lyrics are eerie, Dalley also feels they've been misread. "There's been a whole bunch of [questions like], 'Are you pro-American now that these attacks have happened?' And it's like, we've always been pro-American. We just don't like seeing a field or a forest changed into a strip mall, y'know?"
The only time Dalley's distracted throughout our entire conversation is to alert his bandmates to a rainbow he's spotted in the Miami sky. He's at least 3,000 miles from his Omaha home, which he says was "just hit by 10 inches of snow, I guess," before concluding, "I couldn't be happier to be here in Miami with a T-shirt on."
Denver Dalley is 19 years old and he's touring with a bunch of his buddies on the strength of what will surely be ranked among the best albums released this year.
Conor Oberst, one of the best songwriters in the country, is 21 and on a mission to prove that soft and loud really don't matter after all, that in the end it's the song that counts. Right now he's got a veritable endless supply of aces in the hole.
God, I hope they're enjoying it.