There’s a stringently defined set of rules for the position of people in an elevator. Think about it for a second. When you get on an elevator by yourself, you’re likely to stand in the middle; when another passenger joins you, you’ll almost certainly shift to one of the corners. If you’re outgoing, you’ll probably move to the corner with the buttons and push the appropriate one for your new companion. If, like me, you’re a little more insular, you’ll shift to the corner opposite the buttons and look at your feet. Nobody stays in the middle and it’d be borderline psychotic to stand in the same corner as the only other passenger in the elevator. As more folks come in, the rules shift a bit. Corners fill, then the middle fills. A crowded elevator is probably as close as you’ll stand next to a stranger, excepting other public conveyances like buses and trains, right? Folks who don’t follow those elevator rules stand out as odd, just like close talkers, avoiders of eye-contact and the like stand out. In a similar sense, you know when your wife (or boyfriend, or husband or whatever) is pissed, even before they tell you why, right? A certain posture, a tilt of the head, furrowed brows and the like are all solid non-verbal indicators of displeasure. Ideas like this, generally, come from (or are examined by) the fields of socio- and para-linguistics (fascinating reading here and here), which examine how we interact with each other without speaking. As music listeners and fans, we’re often pre-occupied with lyrics (Does the Boss ever get out of New Jersey if there aren’t any words in “Thunder Road?”). To a degree, this can be to our detriment; there’s a ton of emotional impact to be had without words. In the same way that we know what to do in elevators and how to convey that it was a big deal that the dishes aren’t done, we can glean a ton of information solely from broad sonic landscapes. This is what Oceans is about; the Chicago quintet deliver sweeping post-rock epics without resorting to lazy devices like lyrics to punch you in the sternum. Their music carries a ton of information without saying many things out loud. The result: an hour of tension and release that forces listeners to pay attention while encouraging them to drift off. In other words, it’s the manipulation of our human ability to read things other than spoken language and it is completely bad ass.
The nine tracks on Nothing Collapses, Oceans’ first full length, work in a roughly similar vein. The tracks establish a groove, then build on layers of sound until there’s a big, sweeping cathartic festival of noise. It plays a little bit like a jazz record, but one crafted by folks who grew up on metal instead of hard-bop. There’s a distinct similarity to Austin’s Explosions in the Sky, but this might be the result of that band being another that plays guitars and doesn’t sing. (Which, I guess, makes me a lazy reviewer, but it’s impossible to avoid the similarity, even though these guys are more about riding the wave then crashing against the shore, if that makes sense.) It’s also clear that Oceans listened to some Fugazi along the way; there’s no way to listen to the record and not hear “Brendan #1″ and “Joe #1″ as distant relatives (kind of like Australopithecus Postrockicus). The abrupt stops in “Terrified of What’s to Come,” as well as the vaguely malevolent tilt to many of the songs certainly recall Ian MacKaye and the gang’s work. One unique twist is the the use of a violin, which shines through from the jump; it’s often lurking in the background of songs, laying down an eerie, warbling vibe on several tracks. As a whole, as alluded to above, the songs are about establishing a mood and fleshing it out with sound. “Traps and Traps,” which you can hear below, is a really lonely song, evoking a deserted feeling; even when it gets loud (around the 3:40 mark), the band maintains the sense of isolation. That is a desolate guitar solo in there. Other tracks are more overtly aggresive, or pining or precautionary; the emotional palette tends towards the darker side; there aren’t a lot of songs that make you think of rainbows and unicorns here.
There are words in two places on the record and, given their infrequency, they’re probably both important and worth mentioning. First, on a clear standout, “Boy Detective,” right in the middle of the album, there are vocals after a slowly building introduction; this is twenty or so minutes into the record, so the human voice comes as a bit of a schock on the first listen. The delivery is raw, with several voices (or one voice multi-tracked) howling and pleading to not be forgotten. The song (a long one, clocking in at about nine minutes) closes with a punishing guitar riff and a more choral vocal approach making the same plea. As the song fades, one voice shouts “I’m not coming home” and several respond “I’m never coming home.” If they were doing something similar on all the tracks, it probably wouldn’t work, but it hits hard for its uniqueness on the album. The album’s closer incorporates some singing with great effect as well. The song. “Your Plane Leaves Tomorrow” closes with that same gravelly chorus repeating “One day you’ll wake up in a strange place.” As emotional closers go, it’s a complete winner.
I listened to this album for the first time while I was raking leaves in the flowerbeds in my backyard. It’s the perfect record for physical labor. It imbued my deadening yard work with degree of grandeur and punchiness that, say, Elvis Costello really wouldn’t (not a slam on the dude. You know how much I love “A Good Year for the Roses). That blank sonic canvas, while serving all of the paralinguistic needs defined in the intro, also allows for the listener to transfer some feelings over, kind of like an ink blot for your ears. These songs are about the successes and failures, trials and tribulations of the listener as much as anything else. Nothing Collapses is going to be a record that I’m going to listen to a lot when I’m walking in the park, or shoveling the drive or working on my dissertation, tasks that require musical accompaniment, but are hindered by somebody else’s narrative. I’m also going to keep my eye on Oceans, because it’s impossible to have too many records like this.