Early on in Versus’ return to Earth, Ex Voto, Richard Balayut and Fontaine Toups come together like Voltron to deliver this gem of a lyric: “Nothing is forever/But if you close your eyes/And trust in love/I’ll see you in Heaven.” Heaven for them, and I suppose for us, is where they perform as if they the mid-1990s never ended, with joyous, unending love for plangent guitars and earnest melody from endearing exurb labels. In this moment, I’m perfectly fine with joining them in that comfort zone.
We fell out of touch with Toups and the Balayut brothers after 2010’s On the Ones and Threes, its songs a little heavier and more deliberate than music on either side of it—those earliest entries in Versus’ indie-rock catalog like “Blade of Grass” or “Morning Glory” and, now, the music of May’s Ex Nihilo EP and Ex Voto. The new titles bear heavily loaded meanings from religious Latin, Ex Nihilo heralding the New York band’s return out of nowhere and Ex Voto suggesting the fulfillment of a vow. If that promise was to cold rock a house party, then amen and Hallelujah.
Ex Voto gives me the same feeling of formlessly swirling power-pop that I got from stumbling on Twin Cinema by The New Pornographers, and I haven’t stopped playing that album. Ex Voto clearly suggests where Dan Bejar and Neko Case picked up their vocal and instrumental interplay; you could listen to Versus cuts here like “Moon Palace” up against, say, “The Bleeding Heart Show” and think they’re played by the same band. Richard also leads Versus through some softer, calmer territory, including “Baby Green” and its progression through electric, acoustic, and synthetic elements, as well as the alt-country balladry of “Nothing But U.”
Lest you think Ex Voto exists only to keep up with the indie-rock Joneses, it’s also an instant nostalgia machine on overdrive. It features the full complement of Balayuts, with guitarist James and drummer Edward both joining their brother for the first time since 1996’s Secret Swingers. The band deftly, precariously balance between oddly chiming melody and grungy aggression within the confines of “Mummified,” and Toups on “Atmosphere” leads them through the kind of odd angles and time/tone shifts that defined college radio during the Clinton administration.
Plenty of ‘90s alt-rock acts have returned for another go of it here in the 2010s, while others never left and it shows. Focused and fun, Ex Voto portrays Versus as one of the very few of these artists who not only live up to their rep but might be at the height of their powers.