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Saturday, October 7, 2017

Bettie Serveert: Damaged Good


1) B-Cuz; 2) Brickwall; 3) Brother (In Loins); 4) Damaged Good; 5) Whatever Happens; 6) Unsane; 7) Digital Sin (Nr 7); 8) Mouth Of Age; 9) Love Sick; 10) Mrs. K; 11) Never Be Over.

The somewhat tepid reception of Oh, Mayhem! by those few reviewers and fans that still stuck around rooting for Carol van Dijk and Peter Visser, coupled with a three-year break in recording, finally did the trick: Damaged Good, the band's 10th studio LP, was noticed by almost literally nobody when it came out, and it seems that Bettie Serveert themselves expected this lack of recep­tion, because some of the record's bitter gloom (starting from its self-ironic title) clearly has to do with the near-total obscurity in which they have resided for most of the 21st century.

Undeservedly so, because Damaged Good is another fine offering: not as diverse or flashy as Oh, Mayhem!, and somewhat underwhelming at first, but still, most of the songs are solidly in the catchy-'n'-creative pop-rock tradition. And once again, Peter Visser is as much of a hero here, if not more so, than Carol van Dijk, managing to regularly come up with powerful and memorable pop-rock riffs: ʽB-Cuzʼ, ʽBrother (In Loins)ʼ, the title track, ʽLove Sickʼ, ʽMrs. Kʼ — no fewer than six short, tight numbers that could all have reused stock phrasing and concentrated exclusi­vely on the vocals, but all of them begin by establishing themselves as individual guitar pieces. Mostly in minor keys, combining power, anger, and sadness, any of these could have passed for a potential hit single by some power-pop or post-punk band in the late Seventies; it is not their fault, after all, that they only came up with these tunes after fashion had turned its tables on them, and that, in all likelihood, they will have to wait until Heaven's gates for their proper rewards for refusing to pledge allegiance to the Luciferian likes of Max Martin.

Actually, Bettie Serveert's allegiances are made transparently clear with the first song: not many modern listeners will probably notice that "sometimes it feels like I'm out of my mind" is a direct lyrical and musical quote from The Who's ʽThe Kids Are Alrightʼ, but it definitely is, while the follow-up, "nothing is real and nothing rhymes", may or may not be an allusion to ʽStrawberry Fields Foreverʼ, but in any case, it still harks back to the good old days when musically expres­sing the frustration of youth was a relatively fresh and exciting challenge. In 2016, it is nowhere near «fresh», but somehow Bettie Serveert still manage to make it somewhat exciting; at least, exciting enough for me to forget that Carol van Dijk is well over 50 by now, because she still burns and rages with the fury of a... well, of a 30-year old Debbie Harry, despite some of her vocal overtones inevitably peeling off and dragging her closer to the 70-year old Debbie Harry.

As usual, most of the songs are on a personal rather than anthemic level: Bettie Serveert are more interested in psychological portraits and personal relationships than social problems or politics, and this consistency is only broken once, on the album's longest and most questionable track, ʽDigital Sinʼ. It is the only one that reminds of the band's original slow-and-dirty style of Palo­mino, with draggy tempos, plenty of noise (including a feedback-drenched meltdown in the middle from which the song has to drag itself out by van Dijk's vocal cords), and an opti-pessi­mistic message of "we're broken inside, but we want to believe". Whether it is still about personal problems, hyperbolically aggrandized to macrocosmic levels, or indeed about the original sin and our vain attempts to escape it, is unclear; it is not even clear to me if it is a good song, but I do appreciate the timing — a lengthy, bombastic, ultra-serious noisy post-avantgarde track in the middle of a standard pop-rock album is jarringly appropriate.

On the whole, there are very few slip-ups: Carol overreaches her vocal range on the album's most openly romantic number, ʽWhatever Happensʼ (the "you and I have never met before" conclu­sion to each chorus probably requires some falsetto, but what we get is an out-of-tone screechy rasp that kills off the song's effect), and then the band sounds a little too similar to The Cure on ʽUn­saneʼ (too close to ʽLovesongʼ for comfort) for me to appreciate the melodrama — but even with these flaws, both songs remain worthy of your time. And the best songs are short, simple, and basically flawless: the title track and ʽLove Sickʼ, in particular, are maddeningly catchy, and loaded with that sweet bitter «the real thing» energy that magically transforms generic pop candy into concentrated outbursts of spirituality.

Okay, before I get too corny, let me just conclude that ʽNever Be Overʼ, the orchestrated ballad with which the band concludes the album, is probably the best «soft» song they did so far in their career — granted, its base melody has been recycled from some old folk or soul patterns (I think I hear shades of ʽI Would Rather Go Blindʼ in some of the chords), but the orchestral patterns are new, and somehow the combination of strings, acoustic guitar, and Carol's voice results in some­thing fresh and deeply moving, yet trimmed of any excessive sentimentality.

And let me tell you that it is not just a superficial thing, but at this point Bettie Serveert do sound a lot like Blondie — or, rather, like the equivalent of Blondie, had Blondie decided to age grace­fully and not focus on «staying cool and hip» with the new generation. This here is unpretentious, bare-bones, but creative and intelligent pop-rock with heart, soul, catchy riffs, and an occasional stern ballad, from a band that is keen on getting smarter and ever more adequate as time goes by. Oh, Mayhem! was a good sign, and Damaged Good keeps up the same level of consistency — and, most importantly, shows that the old pop-rock format still holds up when one really puts oneself to it. So, definitely another thumbs up.

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