On some levels, it’s a shame that Versus‘s reunion in 2009 wasn’t met with the same level of enthusiasm as the reconvening of their more famous Amerindie peers. But it’s also understandable. For one, if there’s such a thing as “lunchpail indie rock”—the sort of workmanlike no-frills stuff that encapsulates the sound of those times without really defining it—then Versus was most definitely its epitome. While they were very good at what they did, what they did wasn’t the type of thing to inspire mass hysteria of the “OMG PAVEMENT!!11!” variety.
That said, a better reason for the lack of noise made by Versus’s return to active duty is that they never actually stopped being Versus. They just stopped being Versus on a regular basis, instead spending the years between 2000’s Hurrah and 2010’s On The Ones And Threes sporadically playing out as a unit while working on their own seperate projects. It also helps that Threes didn’t sound like a typical reunion album, but instead more like the record they would’ve made if they hadn’t gone into semi-hiberation for nearly a decade. In case you’re new to what these fine folks have to offer, and you want to prepare yourself for the group’s headlining show Saturday at Cake Shop, here are some highlights (in chronological order) from Versus’s voluminous discography.
“Thera” (The Stars Are Insane, 1994)
After garnering a fair amount of buzz from their first couple of singles, Versus hit the ground running on their Teenbeat Records debut with this track. It’s got the hallmarks of a typical Versus song—Richard Baluyut’s man-of-the-people voice, Fontaine Toups’s slightly sweeter vocal counterpoint, and a little of the loud / soft dynanism to allow a chance for either Richard or his brother Edward to play guitar hero—but the group’s formula hadn’t yet progressed far from their initial “Mission of Burma with Kim Deal on bass” calculations, and as great a noise as they made, there’s a dour po-faced pallor to the proceedings that dampens the mood. Still, if you ask people who gave a rat’s ass about Versus back in the ’90s, they’ll probably point to this album as their favorite.
“Tin Foil Star” (Dead Leaves, 1995) (Spotify link)
And if they don’t rally around The Stars Are Insane, then it’s a safe bet to say they’ll rep for this collection of singles and compilation tracks. Dead Leaves definitely shows the group in a more playful light—the wry and cheeky “Merry Go Round” is an unheralded addition to the slacker-anthem canon. But if you’re looking for prime-era Versus, “Tin Foil Star”—the group’s contribution to the calendar-centric singles subscription series Working Holiday—finds the group stepping out from behind the moody murk of The Stars Are Insane into a brighter, and decidedly more melodic, light.
“Double Suicide” (Secret Swingers, 1996)
Signing to Caroline Records, the alt-rock farm system for Virgin Records, allowed Versus to focus on their music as a full-time pursuit, and that care shines through on this varied yet consistent album. This rave-up (sung by Toups) is one of the record’s highlights, as it exhibits the group’s growth both as songwriters and musicians. And it doesn’t hurt to throw in a little nod to Chairs Missing-era Wire at the end, either.
“Underground” (Two Cents Plus Tax, 1998)
Earlier I mentioned my assumption that most Versus boosters would prefer The Stars Are Insane. I’ll instead stand by this record, which is chock full of bracing and polished radio-friendly unit shifters. Depending on one’s perspective, the group either missed the alt-rock boat by a couple of years, or were too early to capitalize on what happened after The Strokes “saved” rock music. (Unfortunately, both of the group’s Caroline albums are currently out of print, so you’ll have to skulk around record shops or various corners of the internet to give tracks like this would-be single a listen.)
“My Adidas” (Hurrah, 2000)
There’s no way to know for sure whether listeners were supposed to assume a “Last” before the album’s one-word title, but Hurrah did feel like an ending point in a lot of ways. While this record contains some of the group’s best songs (as in the aforementioned lead-off track), its inconsistency made Hurrah sound at times like the work of folks that were possibly ready to go it alone. Both Toups and Richard Baluyut made music during these hiatus years, but it’s the 3rd guitar-playing Baluyut brother#&0151;James#&0151;who made the biggest post-Hurrah splash, with his solo project-turned-full-fledged group +/-.
“Into Blue” (On The Ones And Threes, 2010)
Now as a three piece—Richard B on the six-string, Toups on the bass, and Edward B on the drums—and entering their second decade as a unit, Versus’s days of cranking out three-minute alt-pop gems (like most of the aforementioned songs) seem to be a thing of the past, which seems to fit them just fine. Instead, Versus seems content to make their own kind of music, past or prevailing trends be damned. Given that kind of growth, it only seems fitting to single out this bittersweet contribution by Toups, as the way in which her songwriting has matured over the course of Versus’s existance is endemic of the group’s heartening growth as a whole. At the time of its release, I might’ve been a bit bullish about this record for another publication—I’ll admit, I kinda wanted more alt-pop gems—but if this second act lasts longer than just this one record, then I’m all for more of this kind of growing-old grace.
Versus play at Cake Shop with Wussy, Diehard, and Choo Choo La Rouge on Saturday.