“Seven long years/I’ve been left for dead”, sings Richard Baluyut on the echoing “Cicada” chorus, as if the protagonist in the story may also be the auteur referencing the last seven years of his band’s hiatus. “I fell from grace/with the sun on my face/I don’t want to die/before I see you again”, the song continues while a burst of percussive, electric rock showers down over the brief interlude and plunges the song out of its introspective chorus and back into forward-moving, minor-keyed motion.
Hard not to see the lyrical parallels in those words with a band like Versus, a quiet but dominant leader in the ’90s alt/indie rock scene, who dropped off the face of the musical earth after 2000 (ten years in between albums, seven years in between shows). Now they’ve returned with a flourish on On the Ones and Threes, easily the band’s greatest, most cohesive record and one of 2010’s most pleasant surprises.
From its first few minutes, the album introduces a beefy-yet-melodic rock standard that is carried out consistently and adeptly throughout the entire ten song cycle. In terms of its contemporaries, this is Doug Martsch or J Mascis-type songwriting: ferocious guitars and big instrumental breakdowns over heartfelt tunes; the quintessential alt/indie rock song, yet (in this case) without a hint of age. Songs like “Nu Skin” flex plenty of muscle and manage to work in a little light shredding, while others like “Erstwhile” and “Gone To Earth” showcase Versus’, softer side, via Margaret White’s gentle violins and Fontaine Toups’ subtle vocals.
This juxtaposition of sounds, a conglomerate of the rough and the vulnerable, is best illustrated at the midway point of the album on “Cicada”, a six-minute barn-burner with layered vocals, colossal guitars and a chorus that seems to suspend everything in a haze of strings and self-cogitation until the end when both concepts are fused together with a sly instrumental shift, a mighty key change and a gradual fade-out. It’s the stuff of legend, a song that manages to exist paradoxically in our own time while sounding as rugged and mature as if it just came out of the grooves of a dusty, twenty year-old piece of vinyl. That towering characteristic is primarily what makes the album so fantastic, it already feels like a classic.
“For seven years now/we haven’t heard a sound.”
If this record is, in fact, the result of such an extended musical respite for Versus, it was worth every second.