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Friday, July 11, 2014

Bettie Serveert: Private Suit

BETTIE SERVEERT: PRIVATE SUIT (2000)

1) Unsound; 2) Satisfied; 3) Private Suit; 4) Mariachi Souls; 5) ReCall; 6) Auf Wiedersehen; 7) Sower And Seeds; 8) White Tales; 9) John Darmy; 10) My Fallen Words; 11) Healer.

Finally, upon their fourth try, they manage to get it nearly right — or, at least, as right as possible for a band deprived of original vision or melodic genius. Private Suit is the first Bettie album that I would gladly recommend to anyone, regardless of one's general attitude towards the «indie spirit» of the 1990s. And not just for the sexy album cover, either, even though the sexy album cover is already a good hint at some changes to come.

They went to PJ Harvey's producer with this one, and whether or not this was what made the difference, the sound of Private Suit is a radical departure from the old style. Suddenly, the songs begin to come together rather than fall apart; the sound becomes softer and glossier, more «pop» than «rock», but in a pleasant, tasteful way; new instruments, like lotsa keyboards, make a welcome entrance to cheer up the sound. But most importantly — this is the album on which Carol van Dijk finally learns to sing, or, at least, decides to learn to sing. Or, even more accurate­ly, this is an album on which she adopts a slightly more feminine image (check the album cover again for immediate visual reference!) and engages in a little smooth acting, instead of simply spitting it all out like a Riot Grrrl aficionado.

Already the first song, ʽUnsoundʼ, shows signs of all these changes, and it would be hard to believe that we are listening to the same Bettie Serveert. Lively tempo, swirling organs, guitars that sound more like R.E.M. than Pavement, and a singing voice that is probably an octave lower than Carol's usual style — the "it's good to be unsound, uh-uh" chorus sounds like Lou Reed. No screeching or drowning the listener in pools of distortion, but still plenty of energy and conviction, even if the actual hooks as such are still rather weak (but the shrill Visser guitar solo at the end, rising above the general level of the song and unexpectedly pulling it straight up into the strato­sphere, is top-notch).

For ʽSatisfiedʼ, they choose a different strategy — more psychedelic, with droning guitars, mul­tiple layers of mood-setting keyboards, melancholic cellos, and a vocal delivery that aims straight for the subconscious (the «nasal-somnambulant» type, with overdubs that have Carol engaging in a dialog with herself in the chorus); again, not a «great» song, perhaps, but surely an intriguing one, worth revisiting at least to make sure exactly how much you have missed — a sentiment that was consistently lacking for the first three albums.

Only the third track (title one) finally sounds like good old Bettie: ragged-nervous strumming, quavery, shaking, arrogant voice, and noise-a-plenty in the outro section. In other words, the usual under-written borefest, albeit even that one is still given extra support from a string section. But guess what — it is the only trace of good old Bettie on the entire album. Everything that fol­lows once again obeys the new laws, which demand clear production, well-rehearsed singing, and musical diversity, from the acoustic folk balladry of ʽMariachi Soulsʼ to the Cure-like mope-pop of ʽReCallʼ to the music hall piano waltzing of ʽMy Fallen Wordsʼ to the ultimate conclusion of ʽHealerʼ, which has a little bit of everything (some post-punk, some rhythm & blues, some art rock) and, for once, makes «Bettie Serveert-style depression» a reality.

But the best song of all is ʽSower And Seedsʼ, where the lead singer even tries on a bit of world-weary falsetto for good measure, and the combination of guitar distortion, organ, and that oddly drugged-out voice comes very close to striking out some real magic. Perhaps they were going for a Portishead emulation or something — anyway, it's not tremendously original, but it sounds convincingly tragic. The puzzle of it all, of course, is that songs like ʽSatisfiedʼ, ʽSower And Seedsʼ, and ʽHealerʼ all give us a completely new artistic philosophy — Bettie does not really serve any more, but goes into depressed, deeply wounded seclusion instead, and somehow it becomes her more than when she was all raving and ranting on us. Of course, that might simply be my ugly male chauvinist side speaking up — but then again, I've never pretended liking female rock acts merely for the fact of their lead characters showing «strong personalities», since «strong» by itself never guarantees «emotionally or intellectually interesting». Private Suit, on the other hand, is Bettie Serveert's most emotionally and intellectually interesting album up to that particular moment, and it guarantees the band a far more assured and probably un-retractable thumbs up than Dust Bunnies.

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