BETTIE SERVEERT: OH, MAYHEM! (2013)
1) Shake-Her; 2) Mayhem; 3) Sad Dog; 4) Had2BYou; 5) Tuf Skin; 6) Monogamous; 7) Receiver; 8) LoserTrack; 9) iPromise; 10) D.I.Y.
Oh, bother. All of a sudden and out of the blue, Bettie Serveert come out with yet another LP that gets a whoppin' three reviews on RYM and a mind-blowing four reviews on Amazon (as compared to, say, 523 for Rihanna's latest). And guess what? They have released their best record ever, and nobody gives a shit. That's what justice is all about.
So what's the secret, and what's the deal? Nothing could be simpler: Oh, Mayhem! is the first album in Bettie Serveert's catalog that is completely, from top to bottom, written according to the principle «pop music first, indie philosophy later». It's not that the lyrics are dumbed down or anything — it's just that guitar hooks, symmetric melodic resolutions, and carefully thought out vocal modulation consistently takes precedence over the «message», so that not even the faintest grasp of English is required to fully enjoy this stuff. The Beatles and Blondie have ushered out Lou Reed and Neil Young as primary inspiration, and while this may have pissed off some of the old guard, yearning for another Palomine, I actually view this as a self-imposed challenge: can we, after all these years, carve out a solid, non-nonsense «power pop» album or can't we?
One listen to ʽShake-Herʼ should be enough to inspire confidence. Visser's slightly surf-inspired fuzz riff, Carol's intentionally de-personalized vocals, locked in a carefully overproduced desperate groove, that "yada-yada-yada" resolution, and the economic length — all of this makes the track a serious contender for best pure pop song of the year, all the more amazing considering they never really did anything like it before: too smooth, too well-rounded, and, most importantly, too unpretentious — Carol's cherished personality seems to have been splattered against the melody, a gesture which I, personally, applaud very loudly, since I've always thought that if anything ever prevented this band from getting real good, it was that goddamn ego.
That ego is not completely erased (already on the second track, ʽMayhemʼ, it perks up a bit), but even at its perkiest here it is still subjected to obeying musical purposes. ʽMayhemʼ flaunts its trivial, power chord-based riff louder and prouder than Carol flaunts her voice, which is soon drowned in the soft, subdued, folky arpeggios of the bridge — and then joins Visser's guitar in all of its intonations on the loud chorus: that "oh no, not me, oh mayhem, oh mayhem!" bit is a pretty damn good imitation of a panic attack during a sleepless night. In recognition, Visser ends the song with a totally kick-ass overdriven solo (and it ain't the only one).
Amazingly, almost every song out of ten has something going for it, so I will only name some major highlights. ʽHad2BYouʼ, despite the awful spelling, has some lovely Beatlesque guitar / vocal moves. ʽMonogamousʼ interrupts the formulaic pop flow of the album for a quasi-mystical chant, adorned with roaring waves of feedback and various guitar effects, sort of a «Sinead O'Connor meets Led Zeppelin» impression. ʽReceiverʼ, in terms of fury and loudness, is probably the closest they come to the old Bettie sound, but even here a catchy chorus is in order, and the necessity to rise over the din of the rhythm spurs Visser on to deliver another set of ecstatic, punch-drunk solos. And ʽD.I.Y.ʼ closes the album with the best display of lead guitar technique on the entire album — there is a tricky break there around 2:10 where the rhythm shifts from funky to bluesy without disrupting the flow of the song, but giving it some extra dynamics.
In all honesty, I never expected this. It actually takes a lot of talent these days to deliver a no-frills power pop album and get away with it, without all or most of the songs sounding like weak, unmemorable, copycat creations. But Oh, Mayhem! delivers the goods in form and in spirit — it's loud, it's crunchy, it's filled with sympathetic, life-asserting guitar moves, it's brimming with life and energy, so what's not to like? The fact that it is not quite clear what they actually want to say and where exactly they are going with this? Maybe — but on a record as bubbling with life as this one, you don't really need any straight answers. Might as well just enjoy the ride, and admire all the shiny saddle ornaments. Thumbs up.