For all the talk of “greatness” and “perfection” that floats around when the topic turns to the music of Versus, the topic doesn’t turn that way all too often. In the annals of jangly nineties indie rock; Pavement, Yo La Tengo, and Sonic Youth are the medalists, and Versus also ran. They were robbed. Now their palette of sounds is an anachronism, even though “On the Ones and Threes,” has everything that worked for them in the past when they were at their very best. Maybe more.
The album starts out mid-tempo and dreamy with “Invincible Hero”, and then shifts gears and gets to the crunchy roots of the genre in the middle of the song, already a little more distortion than you’ll find in other later Versus albums. But it’s been 10 years; think of this as a reboot, not a sequel. The crunch doesn’t relent as track two breaks apart like the last song in an encore.
There’s a short detour into the pleasant and orderly, with lots of Versus’ familiar, toothsome boy-and-girl harmonies, and some string arrangements by third Baluyut brother, James (from +/-, a musician’s musician in his own right, not just a bit player in his brothers’ group). Then we get the two meaty, meandering, six-minute epics in the middle: “Cicada” and “Erstwhile.”
“Cicada,” sung by Baluyut, has dark, almost bitter lyrics about being “left for dead,” and falling from grace. The breakthrough for Versus that always loomed and never arrived could be the motivation for that kind of brooding. But Baluyut is old enough now to look back at his early adulthood from a good distance. Who wouldn’t have a few regrets to sing about?
On album closer “The Ones and Threes,” the themes turn downright apocalyptic. But the goth worldview seems like playacting. If it’s serious, and this really is an angry album, it’s still sonically, and lyrically one of their best ever, and crafted with the confidence of a band that did get huge. All that’s lacking is the context it richly deserves. What better way to stick it to the fans who never materialized, than to give the world a taste of what it would have been like if they had?