Last summer, there was beer. I was interviewing Oxford Collapse at my apartment for a feature that would appear in an issue of Death+Taxes later that year. At the time of the interview, their fourth album, Bits, had not been released, but a pair of EPs had: The Hann-Byrd EP and the single “Spike of Bensonhurst”. Guitarist Mike Pace described his Platonic ideal of an EP: “Three original songs, one cover, a remix. It whets your appetite and leaves you wanting more, hopefully.” Bassist Adam Rizer added his own thoughts on the format: “When I was fourteen years old, I couldn’t afford to buy full albums; I’d buy EPs. It was an awesome little world to be in by itself.”
It’s a year later now, and Oxford Collapse are set to play their final shows at the end of this week. They leave behind four well-documented albums, all of which could safely be called “critically acclaimed.” But for a band whose sound and ethic acknowledged a debt to a handful of post-punk (and post-mersh) pioneers, it should be no surprise that many of their best songs and resonant moments occurred within the contexts of multiple EPs. And why not? One discernible benefit of the rise of digital formats has been a renewed awareness of the EP as a distinct and viable creative unit.
And so: a brief review of the life of Oxford Collapse from the perspective of the EP section of their discography. (For relatively arbitrary reasons, I’m not taking a look at compilation tracks or their Daytrotter session here.) I should state from the outset that this is far from an objective piece: both the band and some of the labels involved here are comprised of friends old and new. Make of that what you will.
It began with a self-titled EP (initially released in 2002 on Hott Chubbs Records, and later reissued by Kanine), featuring the lineup of Pace, drummer Dan Fetherston, and original bassist Yong Sing Da Silva. Given that their first album, Some Wilderness, would find this lineup sounding not unlike a post-punk take on Harry Nilsson’s “Jump Into the Fire,” bolstered by the occasional inclusion of organ, the jangly pop heard on Oxford Collapse has the odd quality of sounding like it occurred later in the evolution of the band than it actually did. Following the 2004 release of Some Wilderness came a 12” including a remix of that album’s “Melting the Ice Queen”. The B-side of that would include a cover of The Embarrassment’s “Celebrity Art Party” — if not the first signpost to their influences, than certainly the first overt homage to them.
Exit Da Silva on bass; enter Mike Henry, whose sole recorded appearance with the band on bass would come on the Songs for the Singers of Panthers 7”, released in the UK by the label Discoloration. It’s around here that the style heard on their remaining three albums took shape: more structured and textured songwriting, the addition of brief flashes of melancholy to a generally uptempo pop structure (think The Feelies and Wild Carnation as reference points), and lyrics that incorporated self-deprecation into a subtle yet wide-ranging sense of humor. This is, after all, a band whose third album’s cover features a man drop-kicking an inflatable version of onetime Domino’s Pizza mascot The Noid.
By the time of the recording of the “Decking the Classics” b/w “Packed Churches” single on Version City (as well as A Good Ground, album number two) Adam Rizer had replaced Henry on bass, and was counterpointing Pace’s vocals with his own. And while “Decking the Classics” is a good, witty indie-pop song, that vocal tradeoff makes “Packed Churches” sear. Faster and noisier than much of what had come before (even relative to A Good Ground, the most SST-like of their albums), it memorably closed many a live set in 2005 and 2006.
And we move ahead two years, from the 2006 release of the Version City single to 2008’s “Spike of Bensonhurst” b/w “Bloopers” (Flameshovel) and The Hann-Byrd EP (Comedy Minus One). Both EPs, along with 2008’s Bits, come from the same pair of recording sessions, one with Chad Matheny (aka Emperor X), the other with Eric Emm (now of Tanlines). The Flameshovel single is arguably the most musically adventurous the band got: “Bloopers” is built around Mike Henry’s saxophone, while the power-pop of “Spike of Bensonhurst” centers around piano, and sounds something like a post-Velvets power trio trying their hand at a Box Tops song. Bittersweet and inherently, geographically, tied to New York City (see also: Bits’s “Vernon-Jackson”), it’s a memorable suggestion of a road not taken for the band in question.
One could argue that The Hann-Byrd EP is the best primer to the Oxford Collapse’s sound out there. Or, at least, I would. It’s arguably a moot point now, but if you’re seeking a distillation of their strengths, it’s not a bad place to do it. “Bikini Atoll” is both a strong opener and reflects the side of the band that enjoyed playing with dynamics and elements of drone (see especially “Loser City” and “Return /of Burno” from 2006’s Remember the Night Parties). “Amongst Friends” and “The Pilgrim” mine a more bittersweet vein, and a cover of OMD’s “Genetic Engineering” takes things towards the ecstatic. (The remixed take on “ Bikini Atoll,” retitled “Bikini As Hole” feels, to these ears, a little superfluous.) But even on the three original songs, you get a sense of the band’s appeal: both vocalists are in solid form, the soft/loud balance works nicely, and the melancholy that suffuses everything resonates.
So: Bits is released and toured behind, the last shows are announced, and all that’s left is for the split with 2005 tourmates The Joggers (on Cocktail Partner Records) to see the light of day: the last Oxford Collapse work to do so during their existence as a band. “How Can You Live In the Southwest?” is over in less than two minutes, a clattering burst of energy that heads off the rails as it ends. Live staple “Search Party” is over in less than three, slowly building, Pace’s vocals almost stately, moving through the verses as though the band has all the time in the world. And instead of the expected rush of guitar halfway through, there’s the sound of a melodica to greet us. The feedback does come after a while, guitar and bass and drums making for the big finish, Pace’s vocals losing their cool, but it’s good to see that, even at the end, they still have the capacity to surprise. All I could think of when the melodica hit was that Mad Magazine archetype of a comedian lying in state, the flower on his lapel waiting to squirt mourners in the eye.