Bettie Serveert
Photo: Matador Records

Bettie Serveert Shine Again on the Re-released ‘Palomine’

Bettie Serveert’s Palomine is memorable after three decades. Flexing musically and tonally while maintaining a coherent sound, it merits a reissue.

Palomine (30th Anniversary Edition)
Bettie Serveert
23 June 2023

It can be hard to determine why some bands with all the right elements – songcraft, chops, looks, and attitude – can disappear from the limelight. An example is Bettie Serveert, an indie rock act out of the Netherlands. Named after a Dutch tennis star, Bettie Serveert are still active and have released ten studio albums over the past 30 years, the most recent being Damaged Good (2016). For fans, they have not disappeared. Their prime, however, was during the 1990s when they released a trilogy of records – Palomine (1993), Lamprey (1995), and Dust Bunnies (1997) – that reflected and defined the zeitgeist sound of that time. Their relative absence today from international festivals and touring feels unjust.

Matador Records, their first label, have rereleased their debut Palomine as part of Matador’s Revisionist History series, which also includes LPs by Pavement, Yo La Tengo, the New Pornographers, and Kurt Vile. Bettie Serveert are in good company, and this 30th-anniversary reissue is arguably the most warranted, given the continued prominence of these other acts. It isn’t difficult to find Slanted and Enchanted or Wakin on a Pretty Daze at your local record store. It is likely very difficult to find a copy of Palomine, especially on translucent orange vinyl, along with a seven-inch of three songs initially released with the single “Brain-Tag”, which this deluxe edition offers. 

Listening to rereleases like this conjures the past. I concede Palomine is a personal favorite. I have kept a copy on hand in two Subarus, a Volvo, and most recently, a Prius. However, the first and only time I saw Bettie Serveert live was part of a Matador showcase at SXSW in Austin in 1995. The lineup (in order of appearance) was Spoon, Bettie Serveert, Guided by Voices, and Yo La Tengo. Despite surface differences, it was one of those perfect shows when each band dovetailed into the other.

Though he recently graduated from the University of Texas at Austin, Britt Daniel already acted cocky and super accomplished, playing catchy tunes that sounded like Pixies knockoffs. Demonstrating the possibilities of cool seniority, Robert Pollard high-kicked his way through a set of Bee Thousand (1994) classics. Meanwhile, Yo La Tengo, as the headliners, memorably experienced sound problems (the local sound guy wore an incongruous Pearl Jam T-shirt) but still muscled their way through tracks from their then-forthcoming Electr-O-Pura (1995), including an inspired rendition of that album’s closer, “Blue Line Swinger”.

Against this heavy backdrop, a standout moment was when Bettie Serveert took the stage and played “Tom Boy”, an anthem to budding stardom. By virtue of this fact, it appeared that lyrical intention and the specific occasion at hand had converged fortuitously to create a crystalline memory. Led by Carol van Dijk, the band’s vocalist and guitarist, Bettie Serveert launched into the song with lead guitarist Peter Visser taking a leap in place, landing perfectly on the beat when the percussion entered. It felt opportune, even magical.

The lyrics to the song are straightforward to the point of simplicity, outlining the vertigo that comes from standing expectantly on a stage before an audience. They work. “From where I stand, I can see / They’ve got the upper hand on me,” van Dijk tentatively starts. “Reminds me of this world at last / Simply changes much too fast for me.” From this opening stanza, the song slowly builds to a feeling of empowerment, encapsulated in the figure of the tomboy. “They call me a tomboy, and I love it,” van Dijk declares, “Cause only a tomboy can stand above it or simply change it.”

In retrospect, this gender-bending theme on the track may seem quaint by today’s standards. Still, it is best understood as a tacit critique of the highly gendered nature of the indie rock landscape back in the 1990s. Though key interventions had been made by Kim Gordon, Kim Deal, Bikini Kill, and others, the scene largely remained a boys’ club. Indeed, from a musical standpoint, a central element of Palomine and its successor Lamprey is the tension and interplay between van Dijk’s feminine vocals and the masculine guitarwork by Visser, which often utilized the sound of Neil Young and Crazy Horse.

The opening track of Palomine, “Leg”, displays this affection for this garage rock aesthetic, which kicks in after a quiet, modulated opening. As sung by van Dijk, it is also a ballad of queasy uncertainty followed by certitude. “You won’t have me worried”, she pointedly relays to her male antagonist, “I can still take care of myself somehow.” A small epic, it’s another song that builds slowly to a cathartic, feedback-drenched climax. At just over six minutes, it’s also a bold gesture to introduce an album and a band. Yet Bettie Serveert would repeat the same move on their sophomore effort, with the six-minute opener “Keepsake” echoing the pacing of “Cortez the Killer” before shifting to a faster tempo that underscores a minor-key desperation similar to its precursor.

The other tracks on Palomine are brighter in tone, even if the lyrics trend toward ennui, regret, and even (surprisingly!) casual violence. Songs like the nostalgic title track “Palomine” and the more aggressive “Kid’s Allright” [sic] evince these qualities, while “Under the Surface” is a soaring ode to listening to oneself against the advice and opinions of other people. Signaling their attention to the American scene, the album also includes a faithful, if spruced up, cover of Lou Barlow’s “Healthy Sick” from Sebadoh‘s The Freed Man (1989).

Taken together, Palomine is a debut that has lasted after three decades. Flexing musically and tonally while still maintaining a coherent sound, it deserves this reissue treatment and hopefully will inspire listeners to return to Bettie Serveert’s catalogue. It is too bad more unusual material wasn’t included, such as demos or live tracks, some of which can be found on YouTube. 

Nevertheless, Palomine dropped clear hints at what Bettie Serveert was capable of in a warm and amiable manner. The cover art of a Dalmatian puppy indicates as much. This album aspired to be friends with you. It wanted and still deserves a home.

RATING 8 / 10