On the Ones and Threes
The last time veteran NYC band Versus released a new album, Bed-Stuy was still a neighborhood you wouldn't walk through, let alone live in. Hi-Fi, the now essentially forgotten Lower East Side hipster bar, wasn't even a bar yet, but an important and expertly booked music venue called Brownies. Dustin Payseur, lead singer and guitarist for hot-shit local band Beach Fossils, was in the eighth grade. Giuliani was mayor. The World Trade Center was still standing. The fucking Strokes hadn't released an album yet. It was a different time. And listening to On the Ones and Threes, the band's first new record in ten years, it shows. Versus stick out like a sore thumb among the city's younger bands, so many of whom remain in an increasingly deep lo-fi/electro-whatever rut.
But if we're being fair here, Versus have never seemed tied to any one particular era or scene. They got their start in the halcyon days of 90s indie-pop, with a coveted spot on the renowned TeenBeat label, alongside bands like Unrest, Eggs and Tuscadero that were loosely characterized by jangly guitars and a generally sunny disposition. On the contrary, though, Versus was always just a little darker, a little more serious. Their first two albums, The Stars Are Insane and Secret Swingers, were somewhat lo-fi affairs that were nevertheless stacked with should-be classics (track down "Jealous" from Secret Swingers, I swear). But it wasn't until 1998 that they really came into their own. Released in that year, Two Cents Plus Tax was a glossier album by far, both harder hitting and more melodic than their earlier work. They would release one more similar sounding album, Hurrah, in 2000, before going on what would turn into a ten-year hiatus. They're back now, though, and it's like nothing ever changed. Not in their world, anyway.
The most striking thing about the band continues to be the unique way in which they play with dynamics and contrast. Crystal clear, delicately plucked guitar lines are offset by loud, distorted ones. Drums are alternately military-inspired in their precision and deferentially laid back when things need to breath. They don't do sloppy, and they don't do lo-fi: the interaction between instruments is carefully conceived, expertly executed, and recorded in such a way that you can tell. There's an unmistakable dreaminess at play throughout the album, but it comes and goes, replaced at times with sinister noise, and at others by unabashed, eye-opening poppiness. More than anything, though, it's Richard Baluyut and Fontaine Toups who set the tone and steal the show. They play guitar and bass, respectively, but they also share vocal duties. It's one of the more interesting male/female arrangements anywhere—his voice is deep and sturdy, completely no-nonsense; hers is airy and refreshing, but similarly stern. There's a strange thing about their delivery, too—their melodies have an almost nursery rhyme feel at times, and they both tend to enunciate like they're singing children's music. Far from it, though: "Feeling so happy, the end will come soon" goes a considerably representative line from the excellent "Scientists." They seem generally full of dread, and rather than shrugging it off (the preferred approach of so many of their younger indie rock brethren), they stand and fight, taking all of life's contradictions and spitting them right back at us, in all their beautiful and confusing glory. Just as it's never been common, it will never get old.