If you’ve lost track of Versus since they stopped being “next big things” then now is the time to start listening again. Because Versus continue to prove that they can remain vital, and improve, even without the relentless critical fawning which other great bands like Yo La Tango enjoy. The Magnetic Fields were in the same spot two years ago: a monumental band inexplicably passed over by fashion. And look at them now; they’re PBS mainstream; Stephin Merrit is called a genius daily and all his favorite haunts are a secret. Of course, not all the great ones get their due, but with Versus finally off an indifferent major label (Caroline/Virgin) and on the Magnetic Field’s home indie (Merge) things just have to be looking up.
The band’s latest in a string of strong records is a four song EP of mostly covers called Shangri-La. Released on the heels of an excellent but largely overlooked LP, Two Cents Plus Tax and it’s companion EP, Afterglow, Shangri-La is the first material recorded by the band since parting ways with Caroline. Perhaps as a way to test their new found freedom, Versus has elected to get conceptual on us: The opening track is an original called “Shangri-La,” the second is the Kinks song of the same title, and the fourth, by ELO, is called . . . you guessed it . . . “Shangri-La.” The third track is incongruously named “Out in the Street,” but fear not; it was originally performed by the Shangri-La’s. To complete the package, the cover of the EP is a color-saturated photo of suburban tract housing—presumably a nose thumbing at that oh-so-burgious notion of Shangri-La. And there you have it.
Far be it for me to judge the conceptual veracity of anyone’s concept album; I’ll stick to judging the music. And on that count Shangri-La is fabulous. The Versus original (Shangri-La number one) is complex and catchy, very much in keeping with Versus co-front-person Richard Baluyut’s recent song-writing style. The guitar playing is hooks-galore, as is the drumming, and the lyrics are sharp and concise.
The second track, by the Kinks, is probably the weakest on the EP. Though Richard does an admirable job of interpreting a typically sarcastic Ray Davies song without trying to ape the Kinks’ inimitable jangle, nothing is gained in the translation and it comes off as just a tribute rather than a rebirth.
Next is the Shangri-La’s song—my favorite. Versus updates this Doo-Wop number by turning it’s normally rich background chorus into thin, spooky voices, that sound like they’re coming through a transistor radio tucked under your pillow. Coupled with the minimalist bass and drums it’s effectively creepy yet still Doo-Wop. Amazing.
Finally, there is the cover of ELO’s “Shangri-La”—the only track on the record sung by Versus’ other vocalist, Fontaine Toups. On this song more than any other, Versus demonsrates why they’re the best band in indie rock. Toups’ vocals are delivered perfectly, perhaps for the first time in her career matching Baluyut’s articulated style rather than playing it cool; and the arrangement is unarguably right, showing everything that’s great about Versus while creating a wonderful reminder of everything that was good about ELO.
Versus recorded Shangri-La by themselves at home but you would never guess by the sound quality. Guitarist/engineer Jimmy Baluyut acheives distinct and beautiful sounds for every song on the EP. Even the drum sounds, usually the giveaway of a home recording, are better than Versus’ studio efforts. And not surprisingly, the freedom from time constraints which home recording affords, gives the performances an appealingly natural feel.
After so many strong records it only seems right that Versus be the talk of Rock again. Their debut album deserved all the praise it got and they’ve only improved since. So if there is any life left in the genre of indie rock—and that question remains—then Versus is more than due for a little recognition. They are the under-apreciated gems of this year and last. Don’t miss out just cause everyone else is.
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