Bettie Serves Up an Ace
It’s hard to believe it’s already been 11 years since Dutch rockers Bettie Serveert charmed their way into the heads of North American indie rock fans with their infectious, melodic, puppydog-adorned debut album Palomine. In the early ‘90s, the band had a nice little run with their first three albums, delivering catchy, innocuous songs like “Tom Boy”, “This Thing Nowhere”, and “Ray Ray Rain”, but as time went by, it looked like Bettie Serveert were perfectly comfortable sticking with the same old formula, combining the ragged sound of Crazy Horse with the simple guitar rock of The Velvet Underground (their adoration of the Velvets runs so deep that they released an album of live VU covers in 1998), led by singer/guitarist Carol Van Dyk’s distinctive, marblemouthed voice that sounds like a cross between Liz Phair and Lucinda Wlliams. By the time their album Private Suit was released in 2000, while sounding half-decent, their adherence to that formula really made them come across as a band in a serious rut. People were left wondering if that was all Bettie Serveert had, which makes this new album of their all the more pleasant a surprise.
After taking time off from each other for an extended period, Bettie Serveert have come around again for another kick at the proverbial cat, and their new record, Log 22, while sounding a little bit uneven, is undeniable proof that they’re a band who’s not going to fade away into oblivion quite yet. The main difference between Log 22 and Private Suit is its relentless energy; Private Suit sounds boring and stuffy by comparison, and even worse, on that album, the band sounds just as bored, with Van Dyk’s voice sounding disappointingly lazy and lugubrious. Her fabulous voice takes center stage on Log 22, though, and it’s the best she’s sounded since Palomine.
Not only is the change in Van Dyk’s singing style very refreshing, but the instrumentation, led by the other key member of Bettie Serveert, Peter Visser, offers up a little bit more than the simple rock guitars, thanks to the inclusion of horns, strings, and tasteful helpings of synths and samples. Bettie Serveert’s trademark, straight-ahead guitar rock sound still remains the basis for all the songs, and when the band does rock out on the record, they sound totally reinvigorated. “Wide Eyed Fools” begins with a slinky trip-hop beat, with Van Dyk crooning in a similar fashion as Alison Goldfrapp, before the chorus busts wide open into a joyous rock melody, with lyrics that praise the romantics in the world: “The wide eyed fools know it isn’t easy, ‘cause we’ve done it all before/It’s gonna take an awful lot of courage and some more.” “Have a Heart” boasts horns and flutes, as well as a shimmering, Sundays-style melody, while “Captain of Maybe” is the kind of Bettie Serveert ballad we’ve come to expect over the years, but you get a sense of a whole lot more passion in this new tune. The contagious “Not Coming Down” is simple, ‘60s garage rock, and the equally memorable “Cut ‘N Dried” is a simple, pretty little country-tinged ballad.
Log 22 is best when the band go all-out in their shameless worshipping of The Velvet Underground, and three of the album’s lengthier tracks mark the album’s finest moments. “De Diva” is a melancholy portrait of a woman completely willing to “go down in style”, which instantly brings to mind Lou Reed’s old ballad “New Age”, as Van Dyk sings, “You know me/I’m a walking inconsistency.” The terrific “White Dogs” begins with a two-minute, mellow, strings-enhanced intro, but then suddenly breaks into a steady, six-minute jam, sounding lifted straight from the Velvets’ “What Goes On”. Even more blatant is the driving “The Ocean, My Floor”, whose extended guitar solo, steals its melody from “Lady Godiva’s Operation”. Bettie Serveert are just sitting back and having fun, and you can’t help but get sucked in and enjoy it with them.
For all of its good points, Log 22 has a small amount of inconsistent moments, namely the first single, “Smack”, which is an odd duck of a tune, and as strange a choice for a single as you’ll come across, with its sing-song melody and odd mix of guitars and synths. However, despite its flaws there’s nothing completely repellent on the record, either. When you get to the startling disco melody of “The Love-In” at the end of this goofy album, you wind up shrugging your shoulders and thinking, “Why not?” It’s so great to hear a band as rejuvenated as Bettie Serveert sounds, that a couple of mis-steps are completely forgivable. It’s great to have them back.
// Notes from the Road
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