I was halfway through a menthol cigarette (blech!) when I heard the electric guitars of Bettie Serveert’s Peter Visser and lead singer Carol van Dyk through the open doors of Brooklyn’s Southpaw. So I flicked the foul scourge into the street and hurried inside, sickeningly refreshed and buzzed from the nicotine—this would have to do since, as far as I know, pocket lint is not accepted at most establishments as valid beer money. But the need for such mundane trappings dissipated once I feasted my eyes and ears on these Amsterdam-based rockers for the very first time. I was instantly won over. Visser’s indie cowboy-nerd playing counterpart to van Dyk’s sexy dishevelment, adorned with matching silver glitter guitar straps, formed the perfectly disparate sonic canvas for a Stills-Young-style guitar wrangle, but with a softened brashness plucked from any number of post-punk bands. The Pretenders, with their pop take on punk rock, come to mind but so does Lucinda Williams—the latter not only in the country inflections and van Dyk’s delivery (she also heads up a country-rock outfit called Chitlin’ Fooks), but by gum, she could be her younger sister from the looks of her. I am not the first to make these comparisons but they cannot be so easily eschewed. In spite of that, the band’s influences are actually quite sub-textual, appearing more intermittently between the choruses and deep into the jams. Two guitars piled in with Herman Bunskoeke’s bass lines and percussion courtesy of Stoffel Verlackt (their third drummer) collectively create an original sound that is equally as adept at light-hearted pop songs as it is at full-force rock.
Pervasive melancholy underpins every one of Bettie Serveert’s songs, folded into layers of jangly guitars and peppy drums that make you feel like swaying from side to side, letting the tears well up as you remember a past love or wallow in the realization that you’re an outsider in a world of insiders. Yet at the same time you feel like bouncing around and waving your pigtails just like van Dyk, who cheerily makes it seem alright to feel down; a trampled heart ends up all the more resilient for its ordeal in “Private Suit”, rendering a palpable picture of this duality. It’s also a testament to the outsider status that van Dyk clearly feels she lays claim to. The ode to aimless losers “Wide Eyed Fools” and the self-doubting “De Diva” explain not only how Carol van Dyk feels about herself but also how the band no doubt feels after being dropped from the Matador label at the end of the ‘90s due to bad reviews of their second album Lamprey and waning popularity. They were thrown out on their bums only to get back up, brush themselves off in valiant fashion, and return with a great set of new songs. Matador’s loss indeed. So it’s no surprise that their material directly reflects their own history, although they’ve been employing this happy-sad formula effectively since their 1992 debut Palomine.
Bettie Serveert’s hard-working, talented, under-appreciated, puppy dog, rock-band identity might have instilled pangs of guilt in me which, in turn, might have unwittingly forced me to like them simply to spite the record industry and in spite of any real feelings I might have harbored for the music. I would want to hold them up as underdog champs, you know, on principle—yes, rock critics sometimes have hearts and principles too. But all preconceptions escaped my thoughts as I shifted my focus away from the trivia surrounding the group and concentrated on the massive, wailing sounds coming from the little stage. How could anyone feel bad for a band who gleefully rock out in such a glum but fun manner? Van Dyk and Visser are all smiles and seem to genuinely enjoy what they do. For them, the down times, as much as the up times, are all part of the process: material for more songs, character building, and most importantly the freedom to experiment without constraints from their label. Definitely unafraid of the long jam and its many potential repercussions in the ears of the wrong crowd (read: snooty indie rockers), this band makes indie rock for Heads. A recent Rolling Stone referred to the legendary Television as being akin to the Grateful Dead, of all bands, because of their prolonged, lyric-less jams which recall Jimi Hendrix’s delightfully psychedelic excess, but filtered through the urban grime of early ‘70s proto-punk. Visser likewise channels the psychedelia of both Hendrix and Neil Young but in an even more rudimentary way—close your eyes and you’re not at an indie rock show in Brooklyn, you’re at Kansas City’s Royal Stadium, 1974, witnessing Neil Young duke it out with Steve Stills for improvisational guitar jam supremacy. At times even the surf rock of the Beach Boys can be heard beneath it all. And just before it becomes a retro rehash, van Dyk will step back into the jam, as unexpectedly as she departed, to resume belting out her raw but tender voice, switching up the focus of the song and easing us back into the present with lyrics about the “pre-fab world” we’re all living in.
Style, tempo and mood change from one minute to the next—what seems spontaneous is in fact spontaneous. In a recent interview with Venus magazine van Dyk said “we threw our book of rules out the window,” referring to the making of their newest album, Log 22. While this is true for the album, the spontaneity is best felt at a live show. Over their almost 14-year career Bettie Serveert have survived a brief moment of super exposure and rave reviews, then vicious criticism and artistic slumps and a subsequent breakup with their record label, but they have emerged fresher than ever, with an energy achieved only by throwing caution to the wind. This structure-less approach (I am loath to say “organic” for fear of attracting throngs of jam-band followers) to making music is precisely what needs to infiltrate what Joni Mitchell, another stubborn individualist and record label rebel, dubbed “the star maker machinery behind the popular song.” Bettie Serveert have thankfully returned to assist in that effort.