When Versus first came to Merge in 1999 — with their Afterglow EP — they were in transition. The band’s records were always expansive, but although their mid-’90s albums (including 1996’s excellent Secret Swingers) had a rougher edge to them, their Merge output was a good deal more shimmering and polished. Following Afterglow, 2000’s Hurrah was the most refined and wide-open power-pop the band had made yet.
And then there was nothing. No new records at all. For 10 years. Despite sounding like they were turning a corner in 2000, it took them a decade to take the next step. And now, On The Ones And Threes is here, and it shows both a continuation of that shining path and a few steps back into the mid-’90s fuzz.
This record marks not only the return of Versus but also features a reunion of sorts within the band. Edward Baluyut, the original drummer and brother to lead singer, Richard Baluyut, is back on the drumkit. His drumming — which held up those early records so well — gives this album a distinct drive, one a bit more insistent than what we heard on Hurrah. So despite the fey notes that start out opener “Invisible Hero,” it is Edward’s thundering drums and Richard’s chunky guitar that truly launch the song, and the album, a few seconds in.
That song, along with “Nu Skin” and “Cicada,” fuse the distorted not-quite-mess of early records with the lush sounds the band grew into. At its best, this combination of retreading and revision works well. In fact, it’s the most expansive moments on this record that are the best. Fontaine Toups, who plays bass and shares singing duties with Edward Baluyut, shines all over this record. Her voice is both strong and pained, and she offers a dreamy quality to the epic “Erstwhile,” which wanders in pastoral haze before erupting in a storm of distortion. She’s also singing on album highlights “Pink Valhala” and “Into Blue.”
Her turns at the front might be the best moments because her airy voice is the best conduit to marry the noise with the melody here. Her contributions also shine through because not all of the record works quite as well. That title, On The Ones And Threes, is a reference to being out of step, and there are moments when the band sounds that way. Some songs, like the slow trudge of “Saturday Saints” or the thin-sounding “Gone to Earth,” are stuck between the distortion and the shimmer, so that they have neither the energy of the former nor the melodic heft of the latter.
But perhaps Versus is shaking off the cobwebs a bit, and still trying to find steady footing again after a long lay-off. Overall, though, On The Ones And Threes is a surprising and welcome return from a perhaps underappreciated band. The album may have its bumps, but the unassuming charm these guys have always brought to their records comes through more often than not. So although it’s not the band’s strongest record, it’s got enough life to prove this wasn’t some empty reunion. Versus are back because they want to be. Lucky for us.