Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Versus. Secret Swingers (Caroline/TeenBeat, 1996)

"Be my island/ Be my lighthouse/ In the dark closet/ Look behind the presents."

While most of DC-based enclave TeenBeat's bands put the emphasis on the "pop" part of indiepop, Versus were a little different. While label mainstays like Velocity Girl and Unrest tended towards hyper-catchy, semi-saccharine sparklers tinged with bitterness, NYC's Versus were noisier, thornier, and bigger-sounding. Versus could craft kingsized hooks with the best of them, but there was always a blistering sonic assault lurking just behind the curtains. Maybe New York's cranky downtown noise scene rubbed off on the Brothers Baluyut (Richard, Edward, and James) and their bass-playing knockout, the impossibly named Fontaine Toups, 'cuz there's definitely some Sonic Youth and Television swirling around in there somewhere. Either way, Versus are responsible for some of the most memorable and immediate ruckus of the '90s, and 1996's Secret Swingers is their crowning glory.

The songs on Secret Swingers at first listen sound deceptively simple, built on solid melodic foundations that let the drums, guitars, and bass (with occasional help from organs and keyboards) build to great heights. But Versus consistently exceed expectations with ingenious instrumental flourishes and, again, surprisingly abrasive blasts of furious noise. And that's what set these guys apart time and again: their ability to shape and control chaos, making the maelstrom into something well beyond easy on the ears, planting a flag in compelling territory on song after song.

Let's take album opener "Lose That Dress." It's an impressive calling card: using a loose-wristed, hipsprung strum to set bright major key chords tumbling, the mid-tempo tune has sunny "yeee-ahhhh"s hanging in the background, drumming that shifts between ramshackle (dig the ride cymbal bell hits on the off-beat) and incredibly tight , and a bassline which refuses to be pushed around. The verses are sung by Richard Baluyut with casual longing, while the chorus moves into a slightly sinister sprawl: "I can really like you when you’re sleeping/ I don’t know what you’ve been dreaming," mutters Baluyut in eerie desperation, "I guess I’ll just call you up this weekend."

"Yeah You" finds Toups taking vocal duty, and its a barnstormer of a track, with abrasively pinwheeling rhythm guitars and a singsong cadence delivering barbed accusations of betrayed trust; at the 3:08 mark, the song hits the wall, going from mad dash to drunken stagger in a tangle of abused strings. It's a jarring dynamic shift, and another of Versus' bright ideas.

And then comes one of the best songs of the decade: "Glitter of Love," with its soaring, starry-eyed vocals, Ritalin-ready surf beat, and instantly endearing ricochet hook. The way the two guitars bounce off each other, mixing and mingling and arguing, while the drums -- handled by Edward Baluyut with effing untouchable snare rolls and an admirable sense of timing and invention -- stake their claim for "best part of the song" is thrilling, and makes for a fitting testament to the band. If Versus had recorded only "Glitter of Love" and then vanished forever, that song alone would have been enough to enshrine them in the hallowed halls of indierock legend.

Though "Glitter of Love" is (clearly) the high point of the record, the rest of the collection doesn't disappoint. "Ghost Story" plods along innocently enough for two minutes, and then lets loose the dogs of distortion and turns into a terrifyingly fierce exercise in sonic destruction. "Double Suicide" employs boy-girl vocals and slow fuse build-up to dramatic effect, with a guitar tone borrowed from Daydream Nation and a satisfyingly raucous payoff.

"Shower Song" is supremely unnerving, immersing a snarling vocal melody in buzzsaw guitar bluster, with relentlessly insistent drumming and awesome/horrifying lines like, "You're the lying king/ You're the number 13/ You're the death of fuck/ You just ran out of luck." It's an unchained act of melodic aggression, and it makes me want to put my fist through a wall every time I hear it. "Angels Rush In" finds Toups and Richard Baluyut trading vocals as the see-sawing track periodically trades pretty for tortured and the band guts the melody with dull knives. "A Heart is a Diamond" is a gleaming, chiming anthem, and ends Secret Swingers on a high note with crashing guitars and pounding drums ringing in your ears.

Versus were probably my favorite TeenBeat band, and were certainly one of the most formidable acts on the '90s indierock scene. Secret Swingers makes it clear why. Innovative, monumental songs spiked with caustic layers of expert noise? What's not to like?