"Sometimes I think we'd be better off after the apocalypse. Just bring it back a couple hundred years. No electricity or gasoline. Acoustic guitars are okay," says Versus frontman Richard Baluyut, after a long discussion reminiscing about the palpable danger at Butthole Surfers and Sonic Youth shows during the filth and fecund creative ground that was NYC during the '80s, and the subsequent sanitizing of both bands and music venues in the city.
On the Ones and Threes' brooding themes are explained bluntly by Richard: "Well, I'm just a dark person, and I get more nihilistic the older I get."
Even bassist Fontaine Toups, who assumes lead vocal duties on a handful of tracks, isn't immune to the cynicism. On the gorgeously chiming "Scientists," she keens "Feeling so happy/The end will come soon" over sun-bleached melodies that belie the song's decidedly morose sentiment.
The nihilism comes to an apex on closing track "The Ones and Threes." As a funereal organ gives way to a cacophonous maelstrom of guitars, Richard resignedly urges, "Yes I am the number thirteen/In elevator society/Why be superstitious/When we're all just specks of dust/You can't help it and I can't stop it," as Toups' guardian-angel backing vocals evince the band's greatest strength: the way the pair's voices bleed together so seamlessly. It's the darkest song on the darkest record Versus has ever made.
"That's pretty much my worldview right there. It's about being out of step with everyone else, like Minor Threat!" Richard wryly volunteers. "It's also a joke about Europeans clapping," he laughs. The double entendre illustrates the conundrum at the heart of Versus, that of dark humor obscuring the sheer emotion at the core of what they do.
On the Ones and Threes is the band's first LP in ten years and possibly their best. From the nascent verve of 1993's epochal debut The Stars Are Insane to the more haphazard yet equally great Secret Swingers (1996), on through the glossier pop sheen of Two Cents Plus Tax (1998) and 2000's apparent swan song Hurrah, the band has consistently astounded. But On the Ones and Threes is something of a return to form, featuring the reappearances of original member Edward Baluyut, and engineer Nicolas Vernhes (Animal Collective, Deerhunter, Cat Power, Spoon) who worked on Secret Swingers and Two Cents Plus Tax.
"Ed's more of an arranger and a guitar player, which shapes his more unorthodox drumming style," Richard says. And regarding Vernhes and his fabled studio Rare Book Room, he explains, "He becomes a member of the band, and gets equal rights as far as I'm concerned. He absolutely understands what we're trying to do."
In the decade since the release of Hurrah, many newer bands have emerged from NYC to achieve mega-success. Hard to believe that Versus were once among the most talked-about bands in the city, courted by majors during the post-Nirvana feeding frenzy, releasing two records on Caroline in the late '90s and touring relentlessly. But even though they may have slipped your minds, they're still one of the best bands out there-gritty yet melodic, beautiful yet explosive, balanced on the brink in a way that has become somewhat of a lost art.
As native Detroit-area residents, Richard and I discuss at length Detroit Tigers baseball, in particular the magical teams of '84 and '87, and some of their finest players: Lou Whitaker, number 1; Alan Trammell, number 3; and Lance Parrish, number 13. Coincidence? And he says of shortstop Trammell, both of our childhood favorites, "Should be in the Hall of Fame. Never got the recognition he deserves. He's a bit low-key." He pauses, then continues, "Sort of like Versus, I suppose," said without the slightest tinge of bitterness or regret. In fact, it borders on pride, and this off-the-cuff comment illustrates just what's so great about Versus. They don't need the accolades. All three members have day jobs and lives away from the band. Their music speaks for itself, and it's as good as ever on the stunning On the Ones and Threes.
-John Everhart, with help from Jeff Gramm