How does one review a band who was at their peak when they proudly wore their obsession with the Velvet Underground on their collective band sleeve? How does one review a band whose said VU record was also their debut, and even though they’ve had some shining moments, nothing has come close to that debut? How does the reviewer, who desperately does not want to mention their first record, talk about their new record as if there is no history, and therefore no disappointment?
Bettie Serveert is back again. But, here’s the thing. They’ve never left. It only feels like they’re “back” because of the anticipation they set back in 1992. Attagirl is their fifth studio release since then, and don’t forget their live CD of, suitably, Velvet Underground covers. They’ve always been here and, somehow, with each release it feels as if we’ve been waiting patiently for a kick-ass sophomore effort.
To be brutally honest, if Attagirl were to be reviewed strictly on its own merits, without the beauty of Palomine known, it would be just about summarily dismissed. It sounds like a bunch of working-class adults who thought it might be cool to get together on weekends and “show these kids how its done”, but their influences are a tad off—Toto instead of Nick Lowe; England Dan & John Ford Coley instead of Jackson Browne. That sounds harsh and part of it is exaggeration, but when listening to Attagirl, it’s hard to ignore the blandness of many of the arrangements and the failure of the obvious attempts to parlay some electronica into their world to do anything but create an extremely dated sound. They cover Bright Eyes this time around, poorly, and this is certainly not a time when Conor Oberst needs any more coverage than he is already getting. Plus, they list their bonus tracks on the CD case, which is somewhat confusing on a non-reissue. It looks as if the label is trying to sell more with less. “Look! Two extra tracks for you!” It’s enough to cause an involuntary sigh and a reflexive reach for Nico’s Chelsea Girls.
But Palomine is still out there, and therefore one has to warm to a handful of the tracks on Attagirl. “Dreamaniacs”, despite the juvenile title, is a lovely and rocking opening song. Carol van Dijk’s voice is the band’s best instrument, and she uses it to greater and greater effect as the years go by. “You’ve Changed” is a bittersweet, subtle ode to the idea that one is never completely alone in this world. “Hands Off” is just a great pop song, one that would not sound out of place on Elvis Costello’s Brutal Youth. The rest, though, falter in one way or another and that is a tough thing to admit about a band so many people want to fall in love with again.
It’s not as if Bettie Serveert need to remake Palomine, or even go back to their full-on embrace of the Velvet Underground. It’s just that they’ve never sounded so fully possessed as they did when that record was released 13 years ago. One gets the sense that they’ve been trying to break away from the heaps of praise laid upon them for their debut ever since that time. But, they’ve spent a good deal of their time running away from a musical idea, instead of truly finding a new one to embrace and make their own. There have always been signs of greatness, on every record. We’re all just waiting for that stellar piece of art to emerge again from the heads of Bettie Serveert. At the least, here’s to hoping they never give up.