I got to know Bettie Serveert recently, through a friend more proficient in early ‘90s indie rock. If only I had a hip older sister whose tastes had trickled down; unlike him, I didn’t get that luxury. So, in 1992, when this Dutch band’s seminal Palomine was met with an outpour of critical acclaim, I was still rocking bands like Boyz II Men on my hot pink Sony Walkman, unaware of anything outside the reach of Richmond’s pre-Clear Channel pop station, Q94. That was a year after “Motownphilly”, around the time Nirvana broke—but since my mom liked Nevermind I, naturally, didn’t.
10 Mar 2005: Iota Arlington, Virginia
Bettie Serveert continued to elude me until last October. When I first tried on Palomine, the album sounded dated and generic to my ‘aughts-addled ears. With an imagined sneer toward aforementioned friend with hip sister, I almost—eek—sold it. But I gave it another try, and voila, that was that. The first time around I had expected to hear some sonic landmark containing the lost ancestry of my generation’s indie rock, as though this sole album would act as the missing link between then and now. But my generation’s indie rock was too inclusive for this to work, filled with freaky spazcore, pre-‘90s throwbacks, and crunk IDM. What I was hearing was not the sum of ‘90s indie rock, but one of the highlights.
Of course, after seeing Bettie Serveert live, I would say that “indie” isn’t even the band’s shtick. They’re too engaging to be labeled as disaffected hipsters. Their time with Matador, climbing the college rock charts, was probably more a sum of timing, luck, and a helpful Velvet Underground persuasion than anything else.
It’s common hearsay that Bettie Serveert’s other albums don’t compare to Palomine, so I never bothered with them. Upon seeing the band live, I realized my mistake. Maybe those five later albums aren’t as uniformly well-written as Palomine, as most critics agree, but there must be gems on each one—the band packed its live show full of terrific non-Palomine material. And yes, they did pull out a few well-worn, time-traveled, and beautifully-jammed-out songs from that album, the name of which I have used enough already.
And so it comes time to introduce the band. Bettie Serveert is: Carol van Dyk on lead vocals and rhythm guitar; Peter Visser on electric guitar and voice garbler; Herman Bunskoeke on bass; and Reinier Veldman on drums and occasional back-up vox. Together, the band rocked out for most of the show; though at other times, they electrolounged (more on that in a bit). Throughout their performance it was evident that the band’s affection for making music has not dwindled—the stage was, barring occasional gravitas, full of smiles.
I can’t say the songs from Palomine didn’t offer the best moments of the night—“Leg” and “Tom Boy” were absolutely stunning—but “De Diva”, “Hands Off”, and a fun De Artsen (Visser and Bunskoeke’s former band) cover, in which Visser’s distorted vocals took over, did come close.
The band alternated between its more inspired pop-rock and a diluted trip-hop vibe. My concert buddy dubbed the latter “Pink Floyd disco”, but I fear that may be too generous. These songs went for trippy, to be sure, but Van Dyk had to void out most of the character in her voice to achieve that flat effect of bland, moody downtempo. Kudos to the band for testing out different sounds, but the dancey spaceouts felt misplaced betwixt emotionally gripping classics like “Leg”. That song was transformed into a sprawling frenzy of searing, bittersweet guitar solos that no one could possibly have wanted to end. “Wow” is all I have to say about that one.
The band broke out its Bright Eyes’ cover for the penultimate pre-encore song. Maybe I should let it alone; I mean, it’s always cool to hear veterans pay tribute to younger influences, right? But as one who came of age listening to Bright Eyes, I experienced a strong, and negative, reaction: numerous pained winces. The Betties sterilized “Lover I Don’t Have to Love”, with Van Dyk omitting the angriest verse and shying away from the original’s creepy self-loathing. What is left of a Bright Eyes song when Conor Oberst’s trembling throat goes missing? An eerie keyboard part and a boring hook.
Point-by-point criticisms aside, the big picture is this: A collection of best songs from six pretty good albums makes for a fantastic evening. Despite laboring under the Juliana Hatfield curse of early ‘90s success, Bettie Serveert has put out some stellar music over the years, and I regret not knowing the band earlier. This will not happen again, friends; my ears are to the ground, and I refuse to miss a sound. Guess who’s the hip older sister now.