Bettie Serveert

Dust Bunnies
Private Suit
Log 22

Palomine (Matador ‘93) Rating: A-
One of those outstanding from-out-of-nowhere debuts, this rare Dutch import, named after a picture in an old tennis book (nobody in the band is named Bettie), came up with a minor indie classic right off the bat. An overly simplistic description of the band’s sound might be Sheryl Crow fronting Crazy Horse, since singer Carol van Dijk’s clear, powerhouse vocals somewhat recall Crow and the band’s churning, ragged sound recalls Neil Young and his legendary cohorts. Van Dijk’s warm vocals are both insightful and earnest, whether describing rebellious schoolgirls (“Kid’s Allright”), being a tomboy (“they call me a tomboy and I love it”), or delivering honest depictions of relationships (“if we could turn back time, we would have made the same mistake all over again”). Her impassioned vocal delivery strikes a nice balance between her bandmates’ more melodic moments and their impressively moody jam sessions (“Leg,” “Brain Tag,” “Balentine”), which are led by the aggressive guitar of Peter Visser. Some songs soar higher than others (“Leg” is my favorite) and a few take too long to unwind, making the album plod in places, but there’s not what I’d call a weak song in sight. The pop friendly “Palomine” and “Tom Boy” in particular are immediately irresistible cuts on an album that has both jangly and jagged guitars aplenty. With a fittingly fuzzy sound, New York’s hippest indie label backing them, and a fine Sebadoh cover (“Healthy Sick”) providing further "indie cred" (for those of you Steve Albini types who actually care about such things, though I've yet to meet a landlord who accepted indie cred instead of cold hard cash), this album was as easy to like as the little doggie on its cover, and all of the band’s subsequent releases are inevitably compared to Palomine.

Lamprey (Matador ‘95) Rating: B
This eagerly anticipated follow up received middling to mixed reviews, and the band lost most of their forward momentum as a result. And though I agree that this album isn’t up to the high standard of Palomine in terms of consistent songwriting quality, as it simply lacks the hooky hummability of its predecessor, a reinvestigation of this album’s merits reveals it to be a solid second step. After all, the performances are still energetic and intense, and “Ray ray rain,” “Re-feel-it,” and “Cybor*D,” each among the album’s more upbeat and melodic tunes, are top notch. In addition, though few advances are made from the debut, there are some surprises, such as the orchestrations on “D. Feathers,” the bright keyboards that appear from-out-of-nowhere on “Crutches,” and even an all-acoustic song, “Silent Spring.” Van Dijk again dissects relationships, often in unhappy terms (such as when she offers a few scathing comments about a friend’s significant other on “Something So Wild”), and the music is generally slower paced, though as usual even on the ballads the band’s emphasis is on moody minor chords. Sometimes the album gets too slow and quiet, and these dirge-like sections can be rather dull, but the overall melancholia of the album ends up working in its favor by establishing a consistent (if somewhat depressing) overall mood. Anyway, like I intimated before, this is a good album, but the songs are less distinctive than last the time out, and some of you may not want to put in the effort necessary for these songs to grab hold. I rarely play the album myself, far preferring its two book ending albums, but Lamprey is better than you’ve probably been led to believe (if you’ve heard anything at all, that is, given the band’s subsequent commercial decline).

Dust Bunnies (Matador ‘97) Rating: B+
The ever-unsung Bettie Serveert continue to churn out high quality rock n’ roll with soul, led (as always) by Carol van Dijk’s big warm voice and Peter Visser’s fuzzed up but melodic guitar. The band immediately picks up the pace from Lamprey on "Geek," a propulsive jangle rocker, as the album as a whole has more up-tempo songs and far more variety than its predecessor. Sure, songs such as "Musher" and "Misery Galore" are still sluggish in spots, but "The Link" shows that even the ballads this time have a bit of bounce to them. The album leans closer towards pop than previous efforts, though some explosive interjections aren't uncommon, either. This is also the band's shortest (41:32) album to date, and the songs themselves are shorter as well (best exemplified by all 1:10 of "Story In A Nutshell"), and though perhaps Dust Bunnies lacks the cohesiveness and the epic overall feel of Palomine, it’s another strong collection that gets better with repeated plays. Not every song here quite matters, but “Sugar the Pill” is a sexy Visser/Van Dijk showcase, while "Fallen Foster" and "Co-Coward" (“living in denial, have you lost your smile?”) are soulful, impassioned ballads that expertly convey Van Dijk's sad and lonely sentiments, which are also echoed on "Dust Bunny," a soft guitar/vocal number about a nine year old girl who hides under her bed. Elsewhere, “Heaven” ends things on a heavenly high, while catchy up-tempo melodies mark "What Friends?" and "Rudder" (the latter featuring "ironic" statements about "selling out," irony being almost a requisite for '90s indie bands). Of course, Bettie Serveert are just too quirky and marketing un-savvy to ever gain any kind of mass audience (and their confusing band name doesn’t help matters), though they do remain cherished by a devoted few who simply appreciate good music. Anyway, Dust Bunnies offers a nice mix of intense rockers and melodic ballads, often shifting gears from one style to the other (and back again) within the same song, making for another underrated winner that went largely unnoticed.

Private Suit (Parasol ’00) Rating: B+
Despite the consistent quality of their previous albums, this is the first time that the band has strayed from their familiar path, and my guess is that producer John Parish (best-known for his work with P.J. Harvey) deserves a lot of credit for all the new sounds on display here. Acoustic guitars, strings, and keyboards are all over the album, as Parish brings along a broad, multi-colored soundboard for the band to play around within. That the beginning of the title track brings Tindersticks to mind while sections of “Recall” recalls Radiohead demonstrates the band’s embrace of experimental change, as these atmospherically inclined acts would’ve never even been considered for song templates during the band’s simpler past. The guys even kick in with some solid backing vocals, and Van Dijk delivers her most personal and quote worthy batch of lyrics since Palomine, with lines like “tell me what are we looking for, if all we really want is each other.” In short, Carol’s grown up, a fact that’s underscored by this previously painfully shy woman posing bare back on the album’s cover, as well as with worldly lyrics like “don’t think that this is going to blow my mind, no not this time.” As such, she exudes a sultry maturity, and the album is the band’s mellowest to date. Granted, there are times when I miss the raw excitement of their earlier work, and the band’s songwriting sometimes still lacks distinctiveness. Still, I’m glad that the band has chosen not to rehash past glories but have instead gamely branched out, and the album's warm, richly inviting sound (which would've seemed out of place on Matador; hence the label switch), replete with swirling atmospherics, was a successfully sophisticated attempt at an increased maturity. Songs such as “Satisfied” (which lists marimba, piano, guitar, synth, organ, bass, keyboards, drums, violin, cello, congas, and an octopad among its instrumentation!), “Auf Wiedersehen,” (with its sultry late night mood), and "My Fallen Words" (with its enticing merger of bouncy pop and moody orchestrations) are without precedent in the Bettie Serveert catalog, while the Lucinda Williams-worthy “White Tales” is one of their catchiest sing alongs. Still, most of the tracks here have subtle touches that take time to appreciate, but this band deserves your best efforts, as Private Suit works well as a mature, cohesive whole. It certainly won’t be the record to break the band big (especially given their lack of promotional backing these days), but it’s likely that that time has passed, anyway, and Private Suit should satisfy the band’s already existing fan base.

Log 22 (Parasol ’03) Rating: B+
Released to predictably good reviews and poor sales, Log 22 begins with "Wide Eyed Fools," a strong straight ahead rocker. It's good to see somebody still doing the soft-to-loud dynamics thingy again, and it's good to see Bettie Serveert back to rocking out, as Log 22 reaches something of a middle ground between their early raggedness and the more polished Private Suit. "Smack" is the short but oddly catchy first single, while "Have A Heart" is a melodic, ambitious track with horns, sax, and strings - yet somehow it all works. That said, some of these other songs seem to have a few ingredients too many (string arrangements and low-key keyboards are commonplace), and the album could be better edited, being overly long at 61 minutes and sequencing several mediocre ballads together smack there in the middle. Truth is, the rockers are where this album's at. There are lots of cool riffs on Log 22, though they're often mixed too far towards the background (Van Dijk's voice is up front and center, as it should be I suppose), and the band's Crazy Horse/Velvet Underground worship hits genuinely exciting peaks on a couple of extended jam-based epics ("White Dogs," "The Ocean, My Floor"), while Visser also lets loose with a wild solo on the stellar title track. "Certainlie" seems completely unnecessary by comparison, but at least "The Love-In" is decidedly different, being a toe tapping, flat-out fun disco pop song that's unlike anything else the band had ever attempted before. It's inspiring that not only are Bettie Serveert still around and kicking (well out of the limelight, not that they were ever really in it), but that they're still trying new things. In contrast to the subdued Private Suit, the band sounds positively energized throughout this album, which had it been more judiciously edited could've been the band's best to date. As it is, Log 22 is merely another seriously flawed yet seriously fine next installment in a productive career that has continued well past when many of their fellow 1990s "buzz bands" flamed out. Still more of the same would be just fine by me, in fact.

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