Bettie Serveert’s new album Pharmacy of Love probably isn’t going to get its due for what it is: a solid, consistent album that sounds like the all-out rock recording the Dutch indie veterans have wanted to make all along. Whoever came up with the bright idea to hype Bettie Serveert as the next big thing in the early ‘90s did them a disservice, since overblown expectations and misperceptions of the group were set with its evergreen debut, Palomine. As revisionist history would have it, either the band is a punching bag for everything that went wrong with the pre-Internet alt-rock feeding frenzy or they’re tragically misunderstood and underappreciated. Unable to ever completely escape the shadow cast by the strong first impression it made, Bettie Serveert turned from most-likely-to-succeed into could-have-beens, then somehow became underrated along the way.
The band itself hardly seems weighed down by either history or baggage on Pharmacy of Love, the worthwhile product of an unexpectedly durable and workmanlike career. Wherever critics and fans come down on the new album, everyone should be able to agree that it’s a return to form in the artistic direction it takes, finding original members Carol van Dyk, Peter Visser, and Herman Bunskoeke recovering their rock attitude. Beyond just regaining its footing or rediscovering a formula that worked well once, the group comes off the most confident and determined it has ever been, after spotty forays into more “mature” and atmospheric sounds for much of the last decade.
Frontloaded with its three strongest songs at the top of the tracklist, Pharmacy of Love shows off a bolder, louder, more direct approach right from the get-go. Hard-hitting numbers like the opener “Deny All” and “Love Lee” make instant impacts, but it’s the second track “Semaphore” where everything really comes together, as van Dyk’s ragged but sweet vocals convey the band’s tough and vulnerable sides at once. Starting with an earworm of a riff that works its way through the song, “Semaphore” is a roaring power-pop gem that’s a little grungy, a little twangy, and tastefully glam, as Visser, a genuine guitar hero, channels Dinosaur Jr. channeling Crazy Horse.
The clearer production and cleaner lines don’t always work to Bettie Serveert’s advantage, particularly because the band has nowhere to hide its sometimes awkward lyrics. While the band could get away with the charm of van Dyk’s foreign-language-speaker vocals on earlier efforts like Palomine, when they reflected the same sense of earnest tentativeness that the plaintive music evoked, the Betties’ ESL-isms here seem incongruous with the arena-rock sound that Pharmacy of Love is shooting for. The wordplay on even the standout songs can be too clever by half, as the punny titles of “Deny All” and “Love Lee” suggest. A change of pace where one isn’t needed, the mid-tempo “Change4Me” brings its maudlin lyrics too much to the fore, stringing together hackneyed lines that only seem to be clichés, like “If you don’t love yourself / Then how can someone else”.
For the most part, though, Bettie Serveert ends up on the right side of the line they straddle between being sincerely poignant and generically trite, whether you’re talking about the band’s musical vernacular or even its lyrical content. If you’re not in a rush to make a snap judgment, Pharmacy of Love is one of those albums that’ll grow on you. Van Dyk herself describes the attitude one should take to Pharmacy of Love in a moment of straightforward clarity after unconvincingly riffing off the title of “Love Lee”: “Please, don’t be cynical with me”. Bettie Serveert got over the 1990s, so maybe we should too.
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// Notes from the Road
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