Check out “Invincible Hero”, the opening track of the new Versus album On the Ones and Threes, and it’s hard to believe that the one-time indie stalwarts have been on hiatus for a decade. Whipping up out a whirlwind of guitar sound, then covering it with a glossy, shimmering sheen, Versus sounds as formidable as the song’s title. On par with the best of Versus’ earlier work, “Invincible Hero” is a triumphant return for a band not taking for granted that absence has made any hearts grow fonder. When guitarist Richard Baluyut sings, “You’re gonna need to travel back in time / You’re gonna need somebody on your side / Invincible hero,” he might as well be announcing that Versus is back and in full effect.
To hear “Invincible Hero”, it’s clear that On the Ones and Threes is not just a nostalgia trip—rather, it’s probably the most consistently engaging album by Versus since its 1993 debut The Stars Are Insane. The time away seems to have helped brothers Richard and Edward Baluyut and Fontaine Toups finetune and improve on their guitar-driven formula, which is sharper and more focused than ever. Even if the new effort has its fair share of longer tracks, the compositions show a sense of purpose—think Built to Spill—that sometimes eluded Versus in the past. While almost all of the group’s back catalog is solid, On the Ones and Threes has a clarity and distinctiveness lacking on many of the earlier records; for better or worse, it’s hard to remember what your favorite Versus songs are, since so many of them have become somewhat interchangeable as memories get fuzzy.
Musically speaking, Versus always boasted a bigger, more muscular sound than the indie wallflowers with whom it was lumped, but it was a little hit-and-miss when the trio could corral the loud-soft pyrotechnics with sense of shape and structure to carry the compositions as far as they could go. Not this time around, because the band’s roaring, Pixies-like guitar play is catchy, sculpted, and insistent almost all the way through. So, while it might be no surprise that an act known for its singles and the sporadic outbursts of inspiration on them could come up with the lean-and-mean “Invincible Hero” and the driving noise-pop number “The Ones and Threes”, even the lengthier pieces have a definite sense of direction, especially “Erstwhile”. A meditation on trendiness, “Erstwhile” begins with Toups being contemplative and observational about “Watching the kids / Idling away / Sprawled out, sidewalk, in designer clothes,” only for Baluyut to pick up the thread and flesh out her lead by pushing it to a swelling, fuzzed-out conclusion. Gradually, and in their own time, the guitars build in complexity and intensity on a song that at once stretches the band’s limits, while staying on point.
What makes “Erstwhile” even more of a revelation is the way it marks how Toups is front-and-center on the album as a whole. Although she has always been an equal partner in Versus, Toups often seemed to play the role of counterpoint and accompaniment to Baluyut. Her songs tended to be change-of-pace offerings to his signature sound, just as her clear, elegant voice were more like a complement to his gruffer delivery. A new intraband dynamic is evident on On the Ones and Threes and Versus is better for it, sounding revitalized due to a greater sense of balance between the songwriters, as Toups takes the reins with greater regularity, while the Baluyuts play off her good ideas. And the results keep things interesting and diverse this time around. Her numbers “Into Blue” and “Pink Valhalla” jolt the band with more pep and pop energy, while the understated epic “Scientists” makes a grand statement for Versus with Toups barely having to raise the tone of her voice and the chiming, pulsing arrangements finding a comfort zone between serene and urgent.
That’s not to say the idiosyncrasies that made Versus something of an acquired taste don’t stubbornly cling to On the Ones and Threes. There are some meandering and ambivalent moments on “Nu Skin” and “Cicada”, both of which feel unsure whether they want to rock out or more fully indulge the group’s sensitive side. Moreover, the vocals offer reminders of how Richard Baluyut’s stylized voice and quirky lyrics aren’t for everyone, which always kept Versus’ power-pop potential from being fully tapped. But still, it’s rare for a band seemingly doomed to an afterlife in a used CD bin from indie’s pre-digital era to provide a such powerful blast from the past, while showing off some new moves that might one-up the old tricks. So when Toups sings “Nothing to gain / Nothing to lose” on “Erstwhile”, she’s only half-right: With On the Ones and Threes, Versus shows that there’s a lot to gain when you feel like you’ve got nothing to lose.