Issue #37: Secret Swingers by Versus
October 10, 2016
Released On July 30, 1996
Released By Caroline Records
A perfect album closer is very rare. It should be a song that is a culmination of everything previously, but it should also feel like an ending. It has always bothered me that “Crater Lake,” with its refrain of “You better roll me home” is not the last song on Liz Phair’s Whip-Smart — the record feels like it ends there, but instead goes on for two more songs. After ten songs containing strong sexual references (“Lose That Dress” and “Shower Song“), relationship arguments (“Jealous”), and lyrics like, “we need to try to pretend we’re still in love” (“Glitter Of Love“), Versus’ 1996 album Secret Swingers ends with “A Heart Is A Diamond,” where Richard Balyut sings, “we can can make it work, with a little efficacy” and makes it appear almost hopeful. Most importantly, it sounds like an ending, you know… “boys, we’re winding this shit down, let’s end this so we can all go home.”
Even though I tend of think of Secret Swingers as “‘Jealous‘ and ten other songs” (it’s just so damn great), each and every song really is fantastic — the lyrics are super-relatable, the interplay between Balyut and Fontaine Toups is natural and conversational, the melodies are memorable, and all band members (including two other Balyut brothers on this release) are masterful at their instruments.
A few weeks ago, I had PJ listen to SS and Versus’ 2010 Merge LP, On The Ones And Threes, with me in our record room. I was hoping to pick between the two for this newsletter — I was certain the “rockness” of Ones And Threes would surpass SS‘ “dated” ’90s sound, but as “Lose that Dress” started, my 20-year love affair with Secret Swingers came flooding back. I expected every note and “yeeeahhhhhhh” before it played, but I still felt surprised by what I heard. I don’t think the record is dated at all, and even though I listened to it a dozen times this week, it holds up to multiple listens. Secret Swingers is a rock record masquerading as jangly indie pop, and it’s so good you’ll forget when it was recorded.
Is Versus’ music too subtle? Are they too talented? Too practiced? Too consistently wonderful? I can’t imagine any real reason why their records are not mentioned with Foolish, Icky Mettle, and Perfect Teeth as ’90s east coast indie rock tentpoles. They do have a passionate fanbase — I’ve seen them at least four times (my memories of my college years are spotty) and each time, the audience goes wild.
Perhaps one of the answers is this: after I spent so much time two weeks ago rambling on about Spotify being the great equalizer, it turns out this record is not on Spotify, though all of Versus’ non-Caroline releases are there for you to enjoy. Generally, Caroline releases like those by Idaho and Walt Mink are missing from the service, though some bands were able to buy back their records (Smashing Pumpkins’ Gish). The CD is available cheaply on Amazon, though I’m still holding out hope for a big reissue (hint, hint, Merge Records).
Melissa Koch (@bunnycaper)
Mediocre Runner, Aspiring Celebrity DJ
Versus in the most fitting filter possible. From left to right: Edward Baluyut, Fontaine Toups, and Richard Baluyut.
I listened to Secret Swingers, then I listened again. And again. And again. At some point I started wondering if I’d ever listened to a single album so many times in a row, and I’m not sure I have. I see now that was trying to make up for lost time, not just because I was unfamiliar with Versus before this, but also because Secret Swingers feels like a deeply personal album. One you’d temporarily set up residence within. The kind that would pull you through a difficult time or stand by you when no one else would. The pain and hurt communicated in “Yeah You” are so clearly communicated; I can picture someone going through that exact type of conflict listening, nodding furiously, and pressing play again, gaining strength with each repeat. “You know who you are.” It’s a frightening and inspiring lyric. I hear the same thing in “Double Suicide (Mercy Killing)” with each repetition of “This time don’t you catch me.” It’s a direct command issued from a position of vulnerability, but issuing it demonstrates incredible strength. Speaking of strength and vulnerability, I ended up eagerly anticipating the chorus of “Jealous” each time the song would start, because “Jealous like a good American” is such a fascinating indictment. I kept wanting to think about it from different angles: It certainly works as a comment on capitalism, or is there something deeper, more elemental, about the American experience that absorbs jealousy by osmosis? Where would that jealousy be focused? I think my lasting impression of Secret Swingers will be related to depth, because the deeper you’re willing to dive into these songs, the more meaning expands.
Davy Jones (@youhearthat)
Idealistic Seeker Of Neoteric Sounds
Back in 2014, I stumbled on a rare Versus performance when they were opening for an even rarer appearance by The Clientele. As I noted at the time, Versus have never been a necessity in my life, but have nonetheless been a welcome presence through the years. Versus played a great set that night but it was quickly forgotten as Alasdair MacLean & Co. burned a hole in my heart, mind, and soul. Now, here they are again, turning up like a bad penny, in their more-awkward early ’90s guise. Most of the awkwardness back then came from the demo-quality vocals by Richard Baluyut and Fontaine Toups, not the easy rapport of Richard and his brother James on guitars. I think they knew it, too — just listen to the giggle that ends “Lose That Dress.” These guys must have danced themselves out of the womb (obligatory Bolan reference), however, because their interlocking guitars are a joy to behold. Toups is distinctive on bass, as well, and the songs make more sense with each listen, making this album a real grower. While I love the detail that they took their name from Mission Of Burma’s Vs. album, there’s nothing here as fearsome as MOB — or as indelible as their best song, “That’s When I Reach For My Revolver.” I could easily argue that Versus became a much better band later on (check out On The Ones And Threes), but Secret Swingers has a charming, pixieish whiff of
teen spirit the ’90s and deserves reappraisal and rediscovery by any fan of that decade’s music. Come back, brothers Baluyut — all is forgiven!
Jeremy Shatan (@anearful)
Prescient & Appreciative Musical Omnivore
Few bands have made more impact on how I hear music than Sonic Youth. “Dirty Boots” was a gateway into music that not only pushed the limits of what is listenable but also a studied foundation in the pop hook. To me, they were the source of a different color of sound that underpinned so much of what is venerated in “Alternative” rock. It all comes down to the role of dissonance. Versus has this in spades, but don’t think of it as noise — it’s often more subtle than you think. It actually has become my litmus of sonic sophistication. The fact that perfect pop songs are bathed in complex chords and overtone twists brings me much joy. In fact, if you strip away most of the ’90s and all you were left with is Versus, even just this record, you’d be doing quite well. Secret Swingers has every moment you could ask for. And for all its accessibility, there’s always that quirky aural texture and phrasing seething through the songs. It’s like a beautiful, scentless, and invisible normie repellent. If you don’t feel the hooks sink in after the first few bars of “Lose That Dress,” I’m afraid not much can be done. Groups like Speedy Ortiz or Yuck get it. So let Secret Swingers get you without delay.
Matt Klimas (@nearcticfauna)
Surveyor Of All Things Fuzz
I’m in the fortunate position to have earned a lot of goodwill over the past nine months of doing OYR from friends and peers alike, but it’s time to strip that all away and be cast out into the night with one short sweet confession: I don’t like Sonic Youth. I really tried too, you guys! I’ve listened to a lot of their music with the hope and dream of being a cool Sonic Youth fan. Alas, it was not to be for deep down, I am a simple man who loves a good pop song. So praise be that Versus are here to combine Sonic Youth’s noise rock with some quality pop songwriting. I really enjoyed Secret Swingers from beginning to end. Like Feral Conservatives a few weeks back, this ticks all my boxes in what I want from a record. Constant switching from male to female vocals as they sing about failed relationships, all sitting atop the type of guitar-driven discord that defined the ’90s — it’s just a glorious mix and it all works together perfectly. In a decade as Wild West as the 1990s, where every genre of music experimented and clashed for supremacy, Versus have managed to come out producing a record that still holds up to this day. Secret Swingers is an underrated classic that doesn’t have a misstep, a powerhouse record that’s both beautiful and melancholic. All the cool kids can have their Sonic Youth — I’ll take Versus any day.
James Peart (@choccyr)
Fascinated Binger Of Musical Zeitgeist
Live shot from Merge XX in July, 2009 courtesy of Melissa Koch.
It’s always an interesting situation when Off Your Radar throws me the opportunity to re-examine the work of an artist I already know. In this case, it’s especially interesting because Versus was a band I really loved in their early days. The first few singles they released — “Astronaut;” “Big Head On;” the Let’s Electrify EP; their contribution to the Simple Machines Working Holiday split-single series — all made a profound impact on me as a teenager. I was towards the end of my senior year in high school when I first heard Versus, and followed them closely throughout my collegiate years. But when I dropped out of college in the summer of 1995 and dove headfirst into the DIY hardcore scene, they kind of faded from my mind. I saw them play for the first time that summer, post-dropout, and already the indie-rock scene made me feel a bit like a fish out of water. So while I do remember Secret Swingers coming out a year later, I don’t remember ever really listening to it. Now, at 40 and way past worrying about which scene a particular band belongs to, I want to go back and kick my younger self. This band was great in their early days, and Secret Swingers shows that they were just as great after I tuned out. So what was I thinking? How did I miss out on prime jams like “Lose That Dress” and “Shower Song?” Admittedly, this album contains less of the guitar pyrotechnics that were always my favorite parts of earlier Versus albums, and the sedate, mannered pop sound that shows up occasionally here — “Ghost Story,” “One Million” — would not have gone over but so well with 20-nothing me. But these occasional interludes do nothing to derail the power of the Baluyut brothers’ rock attack. And of course, it remains a unique treat to encounter any of the wonderful moments when bassist Fontaine Toups steps forward to deliver a lead vocal. Really, when I listen to this, my first thought is of how much better indie rock was back in the ’90s, before “rock” was taken out of the equation and we were left with a million wimpy, boring “indie” bands. 19-year-old me had no idea how good she had it. Secret Swingers is an excellent reminder.
Drew Necci (@buzzorhowl)
Insightful Scholar Of The Underground
It’s hard for me to just write about one record from a band that has been so consistently good for more than twenty-five years. I believe my first introduction to the band was through Let’s Electrify, which I picked up based on a friend’s recommendation. I remember Versus songs sticking out on the Teen Beat samplers, each time forcing me to grab the CD case and look at the track listing on the back. More recently, some of my photos of the band were used in the beautiful artwork by Tae Won Yu for their latest, On The Ones And Threes. I don’t know that I can recommend Secret Swingers over any of the others. Just go to any great record store and you’ll almost always find one or two out of print Versus records in the used bins. Buy whatever you can find. You can’t go wrong.
PJ Sykes (@pjsykes)
Gutsy Punk Renaissance Man
I listened to Versus’ Secret Swingers before trying to go to sleep knowing full well that I would be staying up to hear the entire album. Surprisingly, this album is very good at calming me down and made for a good evening album. Secret Swingers is everything a good indie rock album should be. It manages to energize me and relax me at the same time. “Yeah You” and “Glitter Of Love” are already stuck on repeat. Put this record on when you want to be put in a good mood.
Andrew Cothern (@rvaplaylist)
Beloved & Influential Richmond Chronicler
It goes without saying that the single best moment on this record is at the end of “Lose That Dress” when singers Richard Baluyut and Fontaine Toups hold the last note for as long as they can, laugh, and then give the most amazing high-five I’ve ever heard recorded and the album launches into the next track. It just so happens that “Lose That Dress” is the first track of the album. So, one way of thinking is that this moment was deliberately placed at the end of the first track to hook the listener in. It certainly worked for me. But that’s because I’ll always believe the other way of thinking which is that the high-five was going to be at the end of that track anyway and it’s just that they picked that song to go first on the album. The rest of the album delivers on the promise of that high-five, however. Baluyut and Toups trade lead vocals duties and sometimes they even duet. (The duets are the best, if you ask me.) This album really has so much to offer. Loud, ear-shattering songs, beautiful, contemplative songs. Songs that are a mixture of those poles. I really enjoyed this one and if I were to invent a time machine, I’d make a point of going back to the moment of that high-five and getting in on that action. They deserve it.
James Anderson (@unabashedjames)
Devoted Docent Of Musical Concepts
Magnetic and oracular, here is a band that exemplifies the allure and quality of indie rock.
In 2005 I drove my little brother to Atlanta to go see Sleater-Kinney on their indefinite hiatus tour for The Woods. After a fairly long absence, my first band girlfriend was touring again with this totally rad album, and no one wanted to go except my brother, whose main interest was admittedly the opening band Dead Meadow and smoking as many cigarettes as his young ass could handle. Driving two hours, parking in a $20 spot, walking into the Variety Playhouse, I was awkward, unsure of everything from my outfit (black highwater jeans, cardigan, and men’s dress shoes) to where to stand (right in front of Corin Tucker, so close to the stage I could see the scuff marks on her shoes). As people trickled in, pressing closer as the lights went down and the sound of crickets chirping signaled the band’s imminent appearance, I started to forget that awkwardness; as they struck that high-pitched guitar squeal that starts the album, it was completely lost in the sea of faces upturned in awe like mine. From the opening notes of “Lose That Dress,” the first song on the album, I felt the same encompassing welcome, the same side smile acknowledgment of mutual appreciation. Interpol, Sleater-Kinney, Nirvana all lurk in the shadows of this album, present but not chatty, there more to usher in the staccato heaviness of sound than to obscure it. And god, I cannot believe how amazingly perfect this album is for me in particular. Clashing guitars, the electric often played like a bass in the root notes, that flat, melodic vocal tone from Fontaine Toups, the at times odd time signatures are all old friends as I listen, yet again, for one of the last times before I send this in, but one of the first times in what I know will be a long-running love affair with this album, this band. Standing in that theater next to a man I didn’t know but who had sold me a copy of Sleater-Kinney’s self-titled a year prior and included burned versions of all their other albums because he loved that I loved them as much as he did, I felt at home inside that crowd. Pressing “play” on Secret Swingers, beginning dinner prep like I always do, I was taken back to that show, characterized by a lack of pretention and a love of sound.
Laura Burroughs (@_thetwors)
Jestful Musical Erudite
I hate to judge an album by its cover, but if it’s a positive, then I’ll let it slide. You know how I knew Secret Swingers was going to be dope? The dude on the cover is rocking the black 1996 Fila Grant Hill’s. I know that’s a really dumb reason to think that an album is going to be good, but the album as it turns out, is really good, so it’s gotta be the shoes. Despite the vibrant, colorful cover art, this is a really dark album in my opinion. It’s a relationship on the brink. It’s two combustible elements stored far too close together for way too long. Versus do a great job of illustrating the push-pull of a volatile relationship through song. There’s the upbeat passion of “Lose That Dress” and “Glitter Of Love.” Conversely, there’s the depressed, Chris Isaac/California cool of “Ghost Story,” and do I really have to explain “Double Suicide (Mercy Killing)?” But perhaps the essence of Secret Swingers is in the raw contempt of “Jealous.” It’s like an audio version of True Romance — violent, passionate destruction at its best. I’d like to think that the less than ideal mix on this track is deliberate. These two people are so obviously not a perfect mix together, so why would this song be any different?
Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford (@jclyde757)
Steadfast Hip-Hop Historian & Creator
Even though Versus’ heyday was somewhat before my time as an avid music fan/self-aware, intelligent human being (Secret Swingers came out in 1996, three years after I was born), its sound is so instantly familiar, it’s as if I’m discovering a missing link in my history of music. With many artists like Courtney Barnett, Car Seat Headrest, and Waxahatchee drawing on the sounds and musical language of the ’90s in their recent albums, Versus’ classic indie rock style feels almost contemporary. The interplay of having both a male and female vocalist almost never fails to elevate the music, and it’s no different here. This back and forth, coupled with the underlying darkness often laced throughout their lyrics, keeps things nicely off-kilter when set to their more conventional musical and instrumental palette. If you’re looking for some solid indie rock music that brings some of the ’90s back to your life (they even make a Jennifer Jason Leigh reference, which is basically the most ’90s thing ever), Versus definitely deserves your attention.
David Munro (@david_c_munro)
Idiosyncratic Avant-Garde Wanderer
It’s rare that melodic malaise can excite me like Secret Swingers has. The effortless harmonies. The indescribable charm. Even at its gutsiest and raucous moments, the music still feels basic in its design, yet commanding in delivery. You’re left wondering if catchy sections like the alluring “yeah-e-ah” on “Lose That Dress” is sincere or caustic, or if the “oo-ooo-oo” of “Yeah You” could be done with less enthusiasm. Some songs, it’s clear they could be a hit for any power pop band worth its salt, while others — namely “Jealous” — ingrain themselves so deeply into Versus’ signature method that any band attempting to cover it should almost be shunned. The role of angst in music seems almost monopolized by the canonization of Nirvana, but Versus offer up a divergent option — at a time overloaded with alternatives — that’s clearly cut from the same cloth. Their ability to communicate their disconsolate spirit with simple phrases and restrained concepts is simply dazzling, to use a word the band probably hates, and it makes this music required listening for millions of people struggling with apathy, skepticism, and detachment.
Doug Nunnally (@musicdoug)
Garrulous Aural Braggart
I Love You, Go Easy by Devon Sproule
Chosen By Davy Jones