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Friday, June 20, 2014

Bettie Serveert: Palomine


1) Leg; 2) Palomine; 3) Kid's Alright; 4) Brain-Tag; 5) Tom Boy; 6) Under The Surface; 7) Balentine; 8) This Thing Nowhere; 9) Healthy Sick; 10) Sundazed To The Core; 11) Palomine (Small).

First things first: this band used to be quite heavily overrated by the indie community, since indie people tend to value bands for their fire, ferocity, and frustration rather than for their Pythagorean qualities, so to speak — and Bettie Serveert is a prime example of that. Nowadays, as the band's fire seems to have died down a bit, and as so many competitors with even less talent have occu­pied the same turf, that reverence has largely dissipated, yet in the early 1990s these intrepid Dutch pseudo-pioneers of post-grunge indie-rock were really hot stuff. But any band that chooses, of its own free will, at a certain point in their career to cover a Bright Eyes song (ʽLover I Don't Have To Loveʼ, in 2004), would already seem suspicious. And yes, one listen to their acclaimed debut is enough to make you understand — while the band is nowhere near as vile as the artistic persona of Conor Oberst, in theory, they are capable of empathizing with that artistic persona.

Bettie Serveert formed in Holland, although their lead singer and chief songwriter Carol van Dijk originally came from a Dutch family in Canada, hence her total lack of a Dutch accent (it is said, in fact, that she never managed to learn Dutch as a «second native» language after relocating to the Netherlands at the age of seven), nor are there any detectable «Hollandisms» in the lyrics or the music (and if there are, I probably wouldn't know what they would be, unless you start consi­dering «Indorock» people like Andy Tielman). The only Dutchism is contained in the band's name: «Betty serves» refers to Dutch tennis player Betty Stöve, who wrote a book with that title about her career. Apparently, judging by her record, she served all right, but won mostly in doubles — a hint at the band members' complete mutual interdependence? Nah, they probably just happened to fall upon the book title while trying to come up with a name.

Anyway, what is detectable is an almost slavish adoration of dirty distorted «avant-garage» rock — the three major pillars upon which Bettie Serveert try to erect their own little outpost are The Velvet Underground; Neil Young in his Crazy Horse incar­nation; and, from a more recent era, Sonic Youth. The lineup is simple and traditional. The rhythm section (Herman Bunskoeke on bass and Berend Dubbe on drums) is competent, but nothing special. The basic song structures are shaped by Carol herself, playing rhythmic patterns that she probably learned while listening to her idols — nothing special, either. The only member of the band who tries to be just a tad more creative is lead guitarist Peter Visser: his lead parts are thoroughly derivative of Lou Reed, Neil Young, and the Sonic Youth people in terms of style, but his is the responsibility for the melodic content of the songs, and every once in a while he comes up with some original ideas — thank God, or the whole thing would be a total drag.

Now what is it that made people actually fall in love with this bunch of slow / mid-tempo, rather sloppy, thoroughly uncatchy mixes of grungy grumble with hookless folksy chord sequences? As talented as Peter Visser is, the bulk of the band's charisma is generated by Carol — it is she, after all, who writes and delivers the lyrics, and classic-era Bettie Serveert is not a «pop» or a «hard rock» band; it is, first and foremost, a «singer-songwriter» outfit. Each song is a short (sometimes long) personal rant, usually of the «me and you» variety, full of obscure psychologism and veiled complexes — so thickly veiled, in fact, that it can be fairly hard to decode what the hell is that girl really singing about. However, my biggest problem with Carol is not her lyrics, but her per­sonality, which has so far failed to make me a convert. Her voice is fairly normal — neither too sweet-sappy-sentimental nor too arrogant-barking-punkish, just sort of a regular mezzo-soprano with a lot of mezzo and not so much soprano, if you get my drift. Her modulations and mood shifts are subtle and hard to notice, and even harder to interpret, much like the lyrics. But at the same time, there is also none of that crawl-under-your-skin mystique that sometimes infects you when listening to certain superficially unassuming vocalists.

At her worst (usually when she be­gins to rise up the scale in «climactic» emotional outsbursts, e.g. the "have I ever laid my hands on you before?" bit on ʽBrain-Tagʼ), she can be seriously annoy­ing. At her best, like when she gets into dreamy, subtly romantic mode on the title track, she can be mildly pleasant and listenable. But none of this, to me, seems like either great singing or even great «personality demonstration». Perhaps it just so happened that there was this acute demand for strong, intelligent female personalities emerging from behind walls of guitar distortion in the early 1990s, and Carol van Dijk happened to catch that wave — but I am willing to go on record saying that she's got nothing on Aimee Mann, and, totally sacrilegious as it may sound, I'd even say that Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill has more of that «intense female personality» than Palomine, not to mention catchier songs (admittedly far stupider lyrics, though — then again, since I do not understand most of van Dijk's lyrics, I have no way of telling exactly how stupid or intelligent they could appear to be).

Anyway, like I said, if it weren't for Visser, Palomine would be one of the draggiest albums I've ever heard. But already on the first track — ʽLegʼ, beginning as a rambling, directionless, irrita­tingly impressionist folk-rocker — he gradually manages to pull my attention away from Carol's ranting about "reflections in puddles and rain on the faces" and into his own world of trippy rock soloing that quotes freely from both Neil Young's and Robert Fripp's bag of tricks and eventually scales those heights of sonic ecstasy that Carol, on her own, would have no chance at even noti­cing from afar, making it well worth your while to sit through all of the song's six minutes rather than yawning off after the first couple of minutes.

This makes it easy for me to segregate the remaining songs — the more lead guitar they have, the better chance of survival. ʽKid's Allrightʼ is a fast rocker where even van Dijk pumps up a spoon­ful of anger, and Visser throws on lead lines and solos that are quite worthy of the annual Sonic Youth prize. ʽBalentineʼ sounds like a lost outtake from Neil Young's Ragged Glory (with a balance of idealistic romance and furious anger that recalls ʽLove And Only Loveʼ); and on ʽThis Thing Nowhereʼ, Visser thrusts his lead axe right under Carol's nose almost all the way through, and even if she has quite a pretty nose, guess who wins. On the other hand, the seven-minute epic ʽSundazed To The Coreʼ, most of it an unholy mess of distracted jangle, noise, and repetitive, hazy, half-hearted screeching, is so unbearable that I tend to end my listening experience with ʽHealthy Sickʼ (an equally sloppy noisefest, but only lasts for two minutes).

In short, you can see the reaction is pretty mixed here, but there is definitely no way that I could agree with the assessment of Palomine as a masterpiece of Nineties' indie-rock, or even as the band's own masterpiece. I could see where, like so many other albums, it could be embraced by «alternative»-minded college teens in search of a generational support that wouldn't be too trendy or too gimmicky, but, like most of these albums, I'd be surprised if it managed to stand the test of time. The funniest thing about this band, however, is that, the more musical they got, the less cri­tical respect they would earn for that — as if being even a pale copy of Sonic Youth was more of an achievement than trying to excel at, you know, actual songwriting. But all in due time.

Check "Palomine" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Palomine" (MP3) on Amazon


  1. This is one of those authentically Dutch bands that my father always raves about, but never listens to, and I don't think he's heard more than a few songs on the radio, so it's empty praise. If the band sounds somewhat respectable and intriguing you can convince almost anyone not well acquainted with their actual songs that they're critically respectable and all-around great.

  2. "it is said, in fact, that she never managed to learn Dutch as a «second native» language "
    I just checked on YouTube. Her Dutch contains a genuine Dutch accent (hardly anybody speaks it without any accent).
    I also only have heard a few songs on the radio and thought them invariably boring. But hey, I was captured by Therapy? in those years.
    Andy Tielmann was a fantastic guitar player before his car accident though. Black Eyes Rock is stunning.