Oxford Collapse – Some Wilderness
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
What happens when bands become bands? If they're smart, they break up. If they're smarter yet, they get famous and make an album like The Black Parade. Most bands do neither. Here is what most bands do: They make records. This is the point at which most bands start to suck.
If there's any band the term "band" slights, it's Oxford Collapse. I spent a lot of car time last fall wondering what happened to these guys in the time between 2005's A Good Ground and last year's flaccid Sub Pop-debut Remembering the Night Parties. Stuck, I used the excuse to revisit 2004's Some Wilderness. That's when it dawned.
Sub Pop's website locates the corruption in 2002, when one day the O.C. magically ''decided they'd become an actual band [my emphasis] after playing shows around their hometown of Brooklyn, NY.'' C'mon. The dubiousness of show-giving qua criterion for what makes a band a band notwithstanding, that statement's just wrong: No band in its right mind would have issued Some Wilderness. Bands rehearse before hitting the studio, and once there they milk the clock for all its whey, tuning guitars, EQ'ing amps, making sure everyone records to the same click, etc. Some bands actually record the same part over and over again in order to accurately reflect their tendency to perform perfectly; this is called "doing takes." Still other bands use a computer program called Pro Tools to digitally "fix" errors in their "takes" when they realize it's 1 AM and they're two hours over limit and that means another $150 monies and they're already down to the last ham-on-hand sandwich and is anyone really gonna notice the flubbed triplet on "Our Band Could Be Yr Infinity Q45 on Parade" anyway? To think.
I'm using "band" figuratively here, 'course, to represent the ways people who make music legitimate themselves. It's manners really, and manners are always a question of degree: sometimes they serve, sometimes they inhibit, sometimes they castrate.
Oxford Collapse have never dealt well with manners. But the Oxford Collapse of 2004 had by all accounts never handled a soup spoon, and that's part of what makes Some Wilderness so unbelievably great. The album pretty much takes a razor to the face of competence, restraint, tradition. It's a bloodshot, nerve-shook blob of gestures that sometimes acts like music. I mean, Obvious Metaphor: it pulsates. Isn't that the best we can hope for from this stuff?
I know I'm shaping this like your standard Dionysian/Apollonian Battle Royale, but it's more complicated than that. Another one of my favorite recordings is The Quine Tapes, a three-disc set of bootlegs culled from a few Velvet Underground gigs in San Francisco in late 1969. That collection sounds a lot like Some Wilderness: The albums share a bass-heavy no-fi production aesthetic that stays casserole-dish-warm no matter how haphazard the music's gait. The difference? Future-Voidoid Robert Quine's one- or two-mic recordings actually were devoid of artifice; Some Wilderness merely creates the impression.
Knobs are twiddled here, I'm sure of it. You can tell because the songs don't quite transcend. Spin them on a crowded bus and the band's worst qualities jump into relief. Michael Pace never pretends to know how to sing, but he sorts out near the topmost reaches of a mix whose depth of field belies the music's forward momentum, so under normal listening conditions we can pretend not to notice. You'd expect a band this fond of Hüsker Dü to go for a more trebly sound, but the last thing Oxford Collapse want to do is to make their sonic space as claustrophobic and frustrated as their songwriting. So we get a roomy, inviting mix, perfect for a band that thrives on the little big moments.
Scatterbrained and relentlessly non-orthogonal, Some Wilderness lends itself to partwise dissection. You probably don't like basslines as much as I do, but you'd have to hate them to not dig the one Mike Henry lays down on "Melting the Ice Queen." Note also the ham-fisted riff Pace lays atop it: The lines simultaneously restrain and enable one another. But they're also standalone gorgeous, and that's where things get ineffable.
Why does sloppiness behoove some and destroy others? Perhaps for the same reason the Earth is round, or dogs don't wear tuxedoes. Either way, Dan Featherston's exhausted single-smack snare fill anticipates the hook on "1991 Kids" better than could any tighter, more fluid lead-in. The guitar solo on "The Money You Have Is Maybe Too Little" definitely doesn't need to do anything more than restate the verse verbatim, only louder and larded with echo. "Back in Com Again" will always stumble heading into the chorus. The sixth track will always be called "Totally Gay, Totally Fat." Some Wilderness is full of these kind of "seemed like a good idea at the time" moves. It's a great record because the band manages, in so many yelps, to show us why they seemed like the right ones.
By: Sam Ubl
Published on: 2007-02-08