with Dave Barbe and Sarge

Echo Lounge, Atlanta • March 15, 1999

I’m guessing that the members of Versus like the Beatles as much as they do Black Flag. Their records are brimming with well-crafted pop songs, but their live shows have as much sweat and energy as any hardcore show. This recent night in Atlanta (their fourth visit here in the past three years) was no exception.

Sarge is a four-piece from Champaign, Illinois, with a light, sugary (but less filling!) sound reminiscent of the Throwing Muses. The crowd seemed to like them OK, but I didn’t find anything unique about them. Some of their songs seemed vaguely familiar (which is probably a good thing in a pop song), but not especially original (which might also be a good thing in a pop song, but it’s not what I look for in a band).

The audience was a cross-section of the Atlanta music scene, with members of a half-dozen local bands out to see Dave Barbe’s (ex-bass player for Bob Mould’s Sugar, and too many production credits to name) latest project. The band was so new they were still nameless, but expectations were high, and they didn’t disappoint — the band kicked out a great set, with some echoes of Sugar, but more of an Exile -era Stones feeling coming through on some of the songs. There were definitely a few rough moments, but the Athens-based trio was tight overall, with strong energetic songs. I’m looking forward to hearing more.

Versus was supporting their latest EP, Afterglow (Merge), a package of outtakes from their latest full-length release, Two Cents Plus Tax . Like that record, Afterglow is a little softer than previous Versus releases, and more of the songs show the band’s quieter side.

Live, though, it was the same old story — irresistible indie-pop hooks and stuck-in-your-brain-for-the-rest-of-the-week melodies, mixed with waves of punk rock noise, but balanced by quiet moments and sweet, soft vocals. Most of their songs seem to be about relationships — bitter or tender tunes that tread lightly, then kick hard.

Their set was heavy on new songs, including “Oriental American,” a hidden track on Two Cents… They played “Double Suicide” from Secret Swingers (but few others from that record) — in my opinion, this is the perfect Versus song. It starts quietly, with Richard Baluyut (guitar) and Fontaine Toups (bass) trading and blending vocals as it builds to a crashing, noisy crescendo.

A surprise was a quick appearance by Janet Weiss of Sleater-Kinney, with a stunning maraca solo; their show the previous night (and the rest of their tour) had been canceled due to the injury of one of the band members. Janet also joined part-time Quasi-bandmate Elliott Smith at his show the following night.

“This is another love song… they’re all love songs,” explained Toups at one point — and that summed it up for me. The connection between Richard and brother James Baluyut (guitar) enhance the flow of this band as their songs rise and fall, and the feelings of happiness and loss of past relationships all come through in Versus’ music. Great feeling, great songs and great musicianship made this a great show.

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