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Oxford Collapse - BITS

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Artist: Oxford Collapse

Album: BITS

Label: Sub Pop

Review date: Aug. 4, 2008

Oxford Collapse is a throwback – to a time when indie rock didn't involve harps and trumpets, to a time when indie rock performers were smart people but not necessarily very good musicians, to a time when you could write pop songs that people liked and yet not really have any idea, yourself, why they worked. Oxford Collapse doesn't sound like any one band in particular, but they do sound like the sort of band that might have been popular in the 1990s, only to disappear in the new millennium, as if the Y2K bug had snarfed them or something. Think Archers of Loaf, or Boyracer (who are actually still around), or Superchunk. You could go back further – to Husker Du, or Mission of Burma, or occasionally even the Clean – but you don't really have to. If you were in college radio in the 1990s, Oxford Collapse will be wholly familiar.

For every loud indie band from that era that still sounds great (and Superchunk is one), there are a hundred that don't. It's not Oxford Collapse's fault that much of the music of their formative years has aged terribly, but it is fair to think about what they have to offer listeners who aren't holding out for the next Braid reunion.

"Please Visit Your National Parks," from their 2006 album Remember the Night Parties, offers an answer: exuberance. And that’s the main thing Oxford Collapse have going for them – they're dazzling when it's present.

BITS rolls along relatively uneventfully until the chorus of the excellent "Young Love Delivers," well, delivers, with joyous blasts of guitars and a well-placed modulation. "Back of the Yards" does, too. After that, there's a fair number of mid-tempo songs, and it's not that any of them are bad – not at all – but it's interesting that Oxford Collapse are popular enough for a big label like Sub Pop.

In the 1990s and late 1980s, when music like this came around the first time, there was a context for it, because commercial radio and big record companies ruled the day. A lot of the amateurism in indie rock from that era arose in opposition to the professionalism of the chart-topping stuff.

Now, the us-against-them attitude that underpinned indie-rock amateurism seems dated, not only because it's easier to make cheap recordings that sound good, but also because downloading and the internet allow us all to find musical worlds that suit us. It's now possible for a young person to avoid the Top 10 to a degree that would not have seemed possible 15 years ago. (This isn't an original observation, by the way, but I can't remember who made it first.)

This is one reason why indie rock recordings are now so elaborate: the genre defined itself against pop for over a decade, and now that it's increasingly easy for indie rock fans to ignore pop (or even to embrace it, since it's no longer threatening), indie rock is concentrating on what it is for.

So what is there to say about an album like BITS that adheres to the old way of doing things? There are parts of this record that are (I assume deliberately) musically awkward, and the vocal lines are usually doubled in a (deliberately, again) haphazard way, so as to thwart precision. It's built around your standard guitars, bass and drums; the cellos on "A Wedding" are so naked that they draw attention to the absence of non-standard instruments elsewhere. Like so many indie rock records, BITS is a guitar-based record that exists somewhere in between – it's not adventurous enough to be avant-garde, but it also can't embrace pop, because it doesn't want to be pristine.

I'm not saying any of this to be critical, necessarily; the holes are as important to their aesthetic as the jeans. And if you like holey-jeans music, BITS is quite good – singer Michael Pace has a great indie-rock croak, and when these guys are loud, there's no stopping them.

Besides, this may be the beginning of something. At the most obvious level, BITS is hopelessly nostalgic stuff, but at a deeper level, I wonder if Oxford Collapse (and a couple other bands, like Times New Viking) might be out in front of something new. Indie rock doesn't have pop music to kick around anymore, but the increased availability of indie rock, in particular, and music, in general, has its own problems. In the '80s and '90s, most people heard music for the first time at a friend's house, or on a car radio, or a show, or simply by buying the record after reading a review. In all those cases, you were likely to listen for at least a few minutes, and probably more.

Now people hear music for the first time mostly through MP3s and MySpace, and listeners have the luxury of only hearing something for a few seconds before making a decision about it. Couple that with improved recording technology, and the result is a sort of indie-rock arms race, with bands collecting zithers and flutes and audio interfaces so that Sufjan Stevens or whomever will think twice before dropping the bomb.

That's sort of a joke, and the increased ambition in indie rock orchestration has resulted in a ton of great music (including Stevens'). But it has also led many bands to make music that's superficially impressive, but ultimately just superficial. To change metaphors, indie rock is becoming a neighborhood full of increasingly garish mansions, except most of them are all hollowed out inside.

A return to straightforward '90s indie rock doesn't appeal to me, exactly, but I can understand why now might be the right time for it. Maybe there will be some sort of '90s indie revival, or maybe there will be a new kind of music that adopts some of its values. Either way, I wonder if we're about to see a lot of indie rock return to being against things again, namely the kitchen-sinkiness of indie rock in the MySpace era. Some of the resulting music will likely be bad, but it might encourage people to question the degree to which indie rock has come to favor music that's so ostentatious.

By Charlie Wilmoth

Other Reviews of Oxford Collapse

Remember the Night Parties

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Find out more about Sub Pop

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