Bettie Serveert

TrackAlbum
Tom BoyPalomine
Kid's AllrightPalomine
Ray Ray RainLamprey
What Friends?Dust Bunnies
Stephanie SaysVenus In Furs
UnsoundPrivate Suit
SmackLog 22
AttagirlAttagirl
Hell = Other People (alt.)Bare Stripped Naked
SemaphorePharmacy Of Love

Bettie Serveert photo 1

Bettie Serveert (1990) l-r: Peter Visser (guitar), Carol van Dyk (vocals/guitar), Herman Bunskoeke (bass), Berend Dubbe (drums) – photo: Willemine Pernette

 

 

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Betties playlist

 

Contributor: Marc Fagel

Dutch indie rockers Bettie Serveert were stalwarts of the early/mid-90s guitar-driven indie rock scene, resting comfortably alongside bands like Pavement and Yo La Tengo (with whom they briefly shared residency on the Matador label). And for a moment, it appeared they were best poised to make the leap into more mainstream alternative rock acceptance. Certainly the pieces were all in place. In Carol Van Dyk they had a charismatic frontwoman who could veer from sultry crooning to Joplinesque wails, distinguished by intriguing intonations presumably tracing to her transcontinental roots (an English-speaking Canadian transplanted to Holland in her youth). Guitarist Peter Visser generated distorted guitar washes that slotted in somewhere between Neil Young & Crazy Horse and the then-ascendent grunge scene. And the band had a knack for catchy tunes that ranged from frenzied rockers to melodic ballads, while nurturing a just-independent-enough sensibility that could appeal to fans of guitar-driven post-punk bands like Built to Spill or Superchunk while staying grounded in classic rock conventions.

Alas, despite a few singles that drew some play on alternative radio and MTV’s 120 Minutes, they never got a ton of traction. Yet while they’ve kept a lower profile, Bettie has continued to release reliably solid albums across three decades, with a stable line-up (drummers aside) and, allowing for a few stylistic variations, a pretty consistent aesthetic. This consistency can arguably be equated with predictability – in writing this piece, I took a look at some of their Pitchfork reviews, and was surprised by how badly savaged the band were by rock critics as their career wore on – yet while few albums beyond the debut stand as critical components of the indie rock canon, none falls short of perfectly decent, and all offer at least a few tracks that warrant repeat listens.

1992’s Palomine easily holds up as one of nineties indie rock’s finest debuts. Lead-off single Tom Boy is pure ear-candy, a killer hook wrapped around a modest girl-power anthem a year before Liz Phair appeared on the scene (also part of the early Matador stable). The album is loaded up with mid-tempo ballads blending jangly and buzzing guitars, Van Dyk’s entrancing vocals well-complemented but never overshadowed, with tuneful tracks like Under The Surface, Balentine, and the title track all holding up surprisingly well after all these years. Visser cranks up the volume on a few numbers, most notably the raging Kid’s Allright, a bracing post-punk anthem that crosses Superchunk with peak 70s Crazy Horse.

1995’s Lamprey doesn’t stray far from the debut, primarily adding a bit more brightness to Palomine’s at times murky lo-fi sound. There’s another drop-dead killer single in Ray Ray Rain, the closest they’d come to a crossover alt.rock pop tune. Re-feel-it is a punchy rave-up, cathartic yet catchy; Something So Wild is a winning ballad; and Cybor*D is sprawling alt.rock falling somewhere in between. As with the debut, there’s a winning blend of gentle melodies and blissed-out electricity.

By the time of 1997’s Dust Bunnies, Bettie had done pretty much all they could with the basic blueprint, refining it further without pushing any boundaries. There are another couple truly great, pithy pop tunes with the same fizzy hooks the band had already mastered, What Friends? serving as a respectable sequel to Ray Ray Rain, and the barely minute-long Story In A Nutshell a bit of bubblegum-infused pop-punk. The downbeat Sugar The Pill invokes a bit of Velvet Underground, and Pork & Beans similarly sees the band in Velvety territory, moving from hushed ballad to catchy rocker. It’s a solid album, arguably more consistent than its predecessors, but suggests the band was ready for a change.

That three-LP run was capped off by Bettie Serveert Plays Venus In Furs, a live souvenir from a brief tour during which the band played exclusively Velvet Underground covers. Now, the last thing the universe needs is more Velvet Underground covers, but as far as live albums go, it’s actually a nice little treat, the band (unsurprisingly) adept at interpreting both the noisier and quieter extremes of the Lou Reed back-catalog; and while Van Dyk’s vocals are far warmer, you can close your eyes and almost imagine what might have been had Nico stuck around beyond the Velvets’ debut. It’s an inessential yet totally enjoyable affair, and while the band doesn’t introduce much novelty to the original arrangements, hearing Van Dyk’s vocals wrapped around more melodic tunes like Stephanie Says is quite nice. (Sadly, while the band (and certainly Van Dyk) can be quite captivating on stage, they have yet to release a proper live album of their own material.)

When they returned to the studio, they decided to mix things up. 2000’s Private Suit shaves off some of the distortion, leaving a cleaner, sometimes jazzy album that allows the songcraft to stand on its own without falling back on Visser’s more frenetic edge. Unsound is a dynamite opening track, a crisp, dynamic vibe driving towards a chorus that is every bit as riveting as the prior albums’ highlights with an extra coat of polish. The title track has just enough buzz that it could have fit in on earlier work, but with some strings giving it a more sophisticated veneer. Sower & Seeds finds the band still ready to crank up the amps in service of noisy balladry, and White Tales is a melodic pop tune, atmospheric and driving.

For 2003’s Log 22, the band took a step back towards their harder-edge early days, while continuing to deploy the slicker, more densely-packed studio sheen of Suit. Wide Eyed Fools opens the album by highlighting both facets of the band, a restrained, jazz-tinged verse exploding into an incredibly infectious, delightfully rousing chorus. They then one-up themselves with Smack, one of their finest singles, an infectious rocker that takes full advantage of their growing comfort in the studio. There are a few more memorable rockers, like the title track and the pithy Not Coming Down, as well as some stray ballads and saxophones and even, in the oddly appealing closing track, a bit of faux disco. A few of the longer tunes outstay their welcome, but it’s a solid, widely varied album, in my view their best since the debut.

Inducing just a bit of whiplash, 2004’s Attagirl largely abandons Log 22’s return to raging guitar rock, instead taking Private Suit’s cleaner aesthetic to its natural conclusion, a much more electronica-infused pop album. The title track is wonderful, equal bits torch song and funky indie rocker; opener Dreamaniacs is an engaging, keyboard-driven pop tune with a killer chorus; and Don’t Touch That Dial offers another slick hook with a few infusions of the band’s traditional raging guitars. But the album slows down a bit after that opening triad, and while far from bad, comes across as just a bit listless; a fairly faithful Bright Eyes cover as a closer is unfortunately suggestive of a band losing steam.

2006’s Bare Stripped Naked is, as the title suggests, a largely acoustic affair, and a puzzling one at that. A few songs from other albums are repurposed – Palomine’s Brain-Tag shows up as a folky acoustic tune, while Log 22’s jazzy, sax-filled Certainlie reappears here (somewhat anomalously) as the lone electric, Crazy Horse-styled rocker. The album is pretty and relaxing enough, but like Attagirl falls short in terms of truly compelling material. The stand-out is Hell = Other People; the darkly cynical song oddly appears twice, first in its “bare stripped” version, and later in a superior, upbeat alternate version that confirms the band can still come up with a catchy hook.

The band wisely took some time off after that. The break clearly helped them rejuvenate, as 2010’s Pharmacy Of Love finds Visser cranking the guitars back up to 11 and the band sounding much more engaged than it had in years. The songs themselves are a mixed bag, more about the room-shaking aesthetics than sing-along hooks, though Semaphore is a boisterous Sonic Youth soundalike that definitely gets your pulse pounding. The Pharmacy is a bit of a rehash of the same song, but, hey, good song … as is the rousing Souls Travel, total earworm pop wrapped in the band’s fizzy guitar bombast.

Even better is 2013’s Oh, Mayhem!, which, once you get past the unappealing cover, reprises Pharmacy’s energy with an even better set of tunes, straightforward rock songs with buzzing guitars and heavy riffs. It doesn’t stream, so I omitted any tracks from my Top 10, but there are several stand-out tracks here, most notably the almost radio-ready Shake Her, herky-jerky rocker Mayhem, and the chirpy, poppy Had2BYou. Interestingly, the Had2BYou single does stream, and includes as the B-side a cover of a song from like-minded Dutch band Caesar called Situations/Complications, which is fantastic.

Bettie’s most recent album, 2016’s Damaged Good, pretty much picks up where Pharmacy and Mayhem left off, another distortion-heavy rocker with a couple ballads tossed into the mix. As happened back in the 90s, three straight albums of fizzy amped-up rock songs may be pushing it, as the formula again starts to feel a bit tired. They pull off a few more decent tunes – opener B-Cuz is a prototypical Bettie Serveert blast, with a restrained verse and insistent guitar riff breaking free into a rousing chorus, the sort of thing the band seems capable of doing in their sleep; Brother (In Loins) is a quieter, more mid-tempo tune (with another huge, infectious chorus); and the title track is a biting riff-rocker.

Aside from a 2017 single – the mellow, R&B-oriented Say You Will, sounding like an Attagirl throwback from a band that’s been listening to their kids’ Taylor Swift albums – Bettie’s been quiet since then. But given their history, there’s hope they bounce back from a break sounding fresh and revitalized.

 

 

Bettie Serveert photo 2

 

Bettie Serveert official website

Bettie Serveert facebook

Carol van Dyk at Discogs

Bettie Serveert biography (AllMusic)

Marc Fagel is a recovering lawyer living outside San Francisco with his wife and his obscenely oversized music collection. He is the author of the recently-published rock lover’s memoir “Jittery White Guy Music”. His daily ruminations on random albums in his collection can be seen on his blog of the same name, or by following him on twitter. Marc’s previous posts include Flaming Lips, Neil Young, My Morning Jacket, Raveonettes, Phish, Luna, Jesus and Mary Chain, Feelies, Genesis, Wilco, King Crimson and Brian Eno.

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