BETTIE SERVEERT: DUST BUNNIES (1997)
1) Geek; 2) Link; 3) Musher; 4) Dust Bunny; 5) What Friends; 6) Misery Galore; 7) Story In A Nutshell; 8) Sugar The Pill; 9) Rudder; 10) Pork And Beans; 11) Fallen Foster; 12) Co-Coward; 13) Heaven.
Who's got the floor? The Rev. Stephen Th. Erlewine from the All-Music Guide has got the floor: «Instead of developing or refining their sound», says the Reverend in his brief, but stern assessment of Dust Bunnies, «Bettie Serveert stay within their self-imposed boundaries, crafting small, simple jangle-pop songs that never rock too hard or sound too soft». And hear this: «Dust Bunnies... doesn't necessarily return the band to the heights of Palomine. Musically, Dust Bunnies is no different than its two predecessors, and the group's lack of development is a little bit eerie...» Am I the only one to be a little bit confused here? One one hand, we have «the heights of Palomine», implying that the band's third album is a «low» in comparison, but on the other hand, musically, it is no different than Palomine. Hmm. Given my own experience as a review writer, I'd say these hard-to-resolve self-contradictions usually get written when the writer has nothing to say whatsoever. But if it is a band like Bettie Serveert we're talking about, I would think it's only natural. Let us not judge the Reverend too harshly. He probably had approximately 50,000 reviews scheduled for that day anyway.
In any case, I only mentioned this since my own reaction turns out to be surprisingly different: Dust Bunnies is the very first Bettie Serveert album that I can sit through without being consistently bored out of my skull. Indeed, it is «lighter», and also «tighter», than its two predecessors, as if the band had finally embarked on a definite journey to becoming a normal pop-rock band, rather than retaining their carefully styled «indie kids» image. What this means in objective terms: (a) the songs become shorter, so that they are now able to cram 13 of them into 41 minutes, rather than 11 into 49 minutes, as it used to be; (b) the songs frequently pick up the tempo, meaning that even if you can't memorize one, you can at least tap your foot to it (and it is psychologically important, no matter what the serious introspective types tell you with scorn); (c) some of the songs actually have distinctive power-pop riffs — not amazingly great riffs, but actual melodic lines that, you know, explore harmonic space rather than simply exist in it.
So it is not at all in the musical sphere where there has been no change; rather it is in the artistic sphere, since all the songs are still subjugated to the idea that Bettie Serveert is, above everything else, a platform for Carol van Dijk to materialize her endless rants about everything that's wrong in the world today — mainly guys behaving like dumbasses, dickheads, or chickenshits, but every once in a while she also takes on the music industry (ʽRudderʼ). Unfortunately, she still makes no effort to introduce even a little character-defining personality to her singing, but since the basic approach is to be tighter than usual, at least some of the songs now feature marginally catchy chorus hooks (ʽWhat Friends?ʼ, which also has one of the album's best riffs and could therefore qualify for the «best song» competition).
Other quality choices include ʽSugar The Pillʼ, written and performed in Lou Reed style, a percussion-free «urban ballad» with a laid-back, but bitter atmosphere, and probably Carol's only exceptional bit of vocal artistry on this record; ʽPork And Beansʼ, a jangly rocker à la Pretenders that seems to be about the unhealthy relationships between highbrow stars and lowlife admirers, but we've come a long way from Ray Davies to allow ourself to be so unambiguous in our understanding; and, continuing the already established tradition, ʽHeavenʼ, the album's last track, is a softer, moodier ballad that shows Carol's «vulnerable» side (or «childish» side, if you will) and is somehow more charming than all the rest of the album put together.
In between these songs, there is still plenty of tunes that are completely non-descript (I mean, the draggy sound of something like ʽMusherʼ fully justifies its title), but regardless of that, this is a big musical step forward for the band. If critics at the time, like the Reverend quoted above, tended to shoot 'em down, it could have really been triggered by overrating them right from the start: Palomine pretended to more depth and «authenticity of feeling», and felt right at home with the indie aesthetics, but ultimately, it was unoriginal, confused, and boring, and the realization of that must have caught up with the critics right by the time of Dust Bunnies — an album that is much less boring, yet the critical mass imagined it as more boring, go figure. Anyway, a mild thumbs up here, although the band is still growing up and only beginning to cut its teeth in the standard «art-pop» format.