Every now and then, James Balyut has second thoughts about the name he's chosen for his band. "It's a publicist's nightmare," he worries, for when people see +/- written down, they might not get it. They might mistake it for battery terminals. Complicating matters further, Balyut says, is the fact that Internet search engines use plus and minus signs as special characters, so typing them can cause computer confusion.
"I just liked the way the symbol looked," Balyut says. "And I liked the hockey meaning behind it."
A bit of background: Not a single article on +/- seems to exist that doesn't bring up the band Versus. That's the New York City quartet Balyut played in before launching his very own New York City quartet. In fact, he still may be a member of Versus. "I don't think there will be any more activity for a while. We're in a limbo or hiatus kind of state. Perhaps a sabbatical?" he says half-seriously.
Some documents refer to Balyut as "the leader of Versus" (you really suck, allmusic.com), when he's actually the baby Balyut brother and was only allowed Versus membership for its third album, 1996's Secret Swingers, adding guitar and backing vocals. James and his Filipino transplant siblings, Ed (drums) and guitarist/singer/bandleader Richard, plus singer Fontaine Toups, kept Versus afloat for a series of decent, overlooked indie-guitar records. Although James was instrumentally integral to the band, he was by no means its primary force. All Music Guide, however, insists that James was the (ahem) "Major Contributor to the Group." AMG also praises the first +/- album, 2002's Self-Titled Long-Playing Debut, as "a stunning debut from the leader of one of the 1990s most influential indie rock bands."
"A lot of people think I'm the singer from Versus. I can't think of anyone whose voice sounds less like mine than my brother's," James Balyut gripes. "We share some of the same song sensibilities but..." he sounds frustrated. "I have no idea why they would make those kind of mistakes."
At this point, Versus is essentially split into side projects -- Ed Balyut with The Pacific Ocean, Richard on his own, and Toups with her band, TheFontaineToups. James Balyut's +/- includes Versus alum Pat Ramos on guitar, Tony Zanella on bass, and drummer Chris Deaner. Says James, "A friend, once he'd heard all three [side projects], said it actually sounded like we'd split Versus in a centrifuge and distilled the parts exactly."
In the case of +/-, that means isolating James Balyut's guitar prowess. As evinced by much of Long-Playing Debut, his expertise in melding organica and digitalia via software programs is pretty much unequaled in rock at the moment. Add to that the fact that Balyut can write some damn affecting songs and sing them with uncanny precision in his polished-up, radio-ready voice, and he has a postmodern Prometheus on his hands with +/- .
Balyut's manipulations find rhythm and melody becoming transparent and interchangeable, making some of the most compelling sounds hard to identify, he informs. That thumping electro-percussion that thunders through "Surprise"? Uh, it's actually a guitar, he says. The gently hammered vibraphone that begins the forlorn "Cutting Out"? Another guitar.
"I really like sampling guitars, just taking little bits," Balyut says. "Taking guitar playing and delivering it in an automated way. We'll sit and play and cut out the parts we want, and repeat them or whatever. If I had my way, I probably wouldn't even play guitar. I'd just play the samples."
To its credit, the new You Are Here, being a cybernetic, cut-and-paste ProTools beastie, manages to rock out admirably. Whenever it seems that Balyut is hiding in a secret underground lab instead of a studio, he lets loose a prodigious power-chord-and-drum blast to throw us off the trail. As if to remind us he's still there, Deaner lays into his kit viciously on "Megalomaniac," his cymbals crashing hard enough to make you flinch. As can be expected, the formidable challenge of working backward -- actually reverse-engineering these studio songs so they can be recreated live -- is no task for the weak, Balyut says. When it plays live, the band employs keyboards to approximate what might otherwise be lost in translation.
"A lot of these ideas come about because you're sitting there thinking 'This is what I want to hear,' but you don't actually give any regard to whether it can be done by a live band," he explains. "So we spend a good amount of time figuring out how we can actually perform these things."
Because of Balyut's clear, well-mannered delivery and propensity for earnest, first-person songs , +/- has earned comparisons to the Postal Service project. The electronic bent also helped. However, noting that explorer Balyut was there first, one writer did point out that +/- had "beaten Postal Service to the emo-tronic punch."
Balyut has heard these opinions, and offers one of his own: "They're [Postal Service] a bit more new wave," he says dryly, "and a bit more happy."
Indeed, Balyut's on a big ol' bummer judging by some of the songs on You Are Here, particularly "Cutting Out," which equates a relationship's unraveling to a lost cell phone call. Heart on his sleeve, hand on his mouse, Balyut adds realism by chopping up his voice to approximate a bad Cingular signal. Electronic noises slither in and out. Even when a guitar is unmistakably a guitar, it might be manipulated to sound incredibly sinister -- as on the magnificently evil "Surprise."
Tracing Balyut's sonic lineage tends to dead-end at other imaginative two-guitar bands (think Television or Felt) but with +/-, he appears intent on taking the guitar where it has never gone before. Because Balyut reaches for something futuristic and undiscovered, +/- trods bravely across virgin turf. The fundamental tools of You Are Here simply weren't available ten years ago. When Balyut employs a more standard twin-guitar attack, he and Ramos reach dizzying heights on "Trapped Under Ice Floes." There are no weak moments to be found on You Are Here, though some may find it frustratingly eclectic.
Exceptions to the rule (aren't there always a few?) abound on "Everything I See Makes it Feel Wrong," the melancholy, all acoustic closer that imagines meeting Morrissey for a drink and a good cry. Also acoustic, but audibly sampled and reassembled, is "Summer Dress," an airy, romantic composition James admits is his attempt to '"reinvent Nick Drake or something. I confess. I can't deny that he's a huge influence. But I say that with some hesitation because I don't like retro stuff, I don't like mining the past for your ideas -- at least so blatantly as has been happening.
"After electronic music was big," he theorizes, "people really started jumping bandwagons. Recreating the '60s and the '70s. I just don't see the point in it! Well," he reasons, "I guess I do understand. I just could never do that. There's no point to plying music that someone has already done before -- and presumably better."
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