[22 October 2009]
Though best known as the singer from the Belgium band K’s Choice (who scored both an alternative rock hit with “Not An Addict” and made an appearance on Buffy the Vampire Slayer back in the mid-‘90s), Sarah Bettens has a lovely, distinctive husk of a voice. It is one that has always needed a proper context to showcase her gift of capturing the essential, wistful sadness within her songs. This is something K’s Choice grew to understand, meaning its final two albums, 1998’s Cocoon Crash and 2002’s Almost Happy, were by far the band’s best, as both found the perfect merger between Bettens’ achingly sincere lyrics and band’s increasingly lush melodies. It’s a shame that her two subsequent solo outings, 2005’s Scream and 2007’s Shine, were saddled with the kind of slick, generic production typical of a Kelly Clarkson record, obscuring Bettens’ fragile vocals underneath the blare of processed guitars and radio-friendly arrangements.
Inspired by a recent low-key theater tour in which she “rediscovered how powerful songs can be when they’re stripped to nothing”, Bettens offers Never Say Goodbye, a mishmash of three new songs, two covers, and a handful of live acoustic solo renditions (plus “Not An Addict”, just in case anyone forgot). Revealingly, the best moments are those revisited solo tracks, as the absence of bombast and the newfound clarity of Bettens’ vocals uncover the strength of the songwriting behind songs like “Go”, “Scream”, and “Daddy’s Gun”. Conversely, she gets overmatched on Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’‘t Make You Love Me” and Arthur Hamilton’s “Cry Me a River”, as the material isn’t fitted to her winsome sense of childlike vulnerability. (The ridiculous retro-jazz original “I Can Do Better Than You” only compounds this further.) Such detours, plus the fact that just three of these 11 tracks are studio recordings, make Never Say Goodbye the indulgence it was probably intended to be, but in its finer moments, it hopefully suggests a new and better direction for Bettens’ next batch of songs.