Opening up with a revving engine reminiscent of the Beach Boys’ auto-anthem “409”, Oxford Collapse’s second recording on Sub Pop announces its intentions immediately: this baby is built for speed. Or so we’re lead to think, at least. Bits is an album like that; an album of leading questions, inferences, sly suggestions buttressed by active eyebrows. This often-frantic trio from Brooklyn never quite get to where they want you to believe they’re headed. Instead, they offer a snapshot in mid-stride, action photography with no particular context, arc, or closure.
It’s initially (and ultimately) difficult to reach much beyond Oxford Collapse’s staunch commitment to fashionable indie-rock tropes. They revel in tinny, low-fi over-underproduction, muddle the off-kilter yelps of singer Michael Pace while pushing forward the retro jangle of his lead guitar, privilege bratty youthful exuberance over technical proficiency or precise songcraft. The lyrics are blared out as through a muffled megaphone. As usual, it doesn’t matter if they make any particular sense or even if they’re remotely intelligible, as long as they include a lot of thesaurus words and sound vaguely clever—I picked out “enthralled”, “filibustering”, “acquiesce”, and even “thesaurus” from the rubble. Even their name encompasses basic countercultural concerns, enfolding indie’s inevitable higher-education pedigree with the attendant breakdown anxiety in a manner that fits their chosen vernacular snugly.
All of these predictable generic elements lodge together in the common loft-space of “Young Love Delivers”, a sort of catch-all smorgasbord of indie culture. International travel (“My love came back from China / Brought me a pocket camera”), casual “artsy” photography (“Ran through familiar cities / Took pictures of all the same things”), and intellectual pretension (“My love came back from Sweden / Brought me some bathroom reading”) all get checked off the list, but Pace betrays a restless dissatisfaction with the narcissistic demands of his subculture that twists the song away from navel-gazing and towards critique. His sardonic evenness as he sings “We’re so mature / Memorizing words” comes off more as a rebuke of a social circle of archly witty Juno MacGuffs than as winking solidarity for their righteousness, and “we can’t believe we lost our cool” could well have a sneaking double-meaning in this context. And it doesn’t hurt that “Young Love Delivers” might be the sharpest, most dynamic cut Bits has to offer, careening from infectious verse to glorying chorus without as much as a breath.
It’s a nervous dynamism that much of the rest of the album approximates but never really recaptures. These boys can relax enough to muster simple, appealing power-pop (“Featherbeds”) and coil themselves tightly enough to harmonize with sophisticated strings behind them (“A Wedding”). And late in the running order comes the beguiling “John Blood”, the narrative of a touring pro wrestler that makes up for its lack of lyrical focus with lithe rhythm, Clash-y guitar strums, whispery female-voiced interludes, and Monster-era Peter Buck power-sustains. But moody exercises like “Children’s Crusade” or breakneck ravers like “Back of the Yards” have less to offer. Even lead single “The Birthday Wars”, though undeniably striking in its early-Spoon-esque mountain of sound, cuts out too early to take full advantage of the sheer-cliff juxtaposition of its sonic superstructure and its counter-melody.
Like so many of their generic contemporaries, Oxford Collapse reside firmly in the moment. In some ways, they demonstrate succinctly why indie-rock is no longer tangential to mainstream pop music but rather runs parallel to it: both indie and pop are predicated on immediacy and feel, not on scope but on currency. No introductions necessary, no set-up required; we always arrive in medias res. Meticulously composed to simulate spontaneity, the sort of alternative product exemplified by Oxford Collapse may not make you feel like you’re part of the Movement, but it certainly makes you feel part of movement. Or, at the very least, that you’re watching it from the sweaty first row.