25 years in, the Dutch rockers are as vital as on their debut. We dissect the band's aural secret weapons.
Okay, mature rockers, want to make yourself so sad that you’ll weep openly into your ultra-hoppy craft beer? Have a look at the Village Voice’s 1993 Pazz & Jop Poll. Go ahead; I’ve provided a helpful link: https://www.robertchristgau.com/xg/pnj/pjres93.php Look at those names – Liz Phair, Nirvana, PJ Harvey, De La Soul, Digable Planets – it’s a frickin’ goldmine of wonderful music. The reason I bring it up? Besides my inveterate love of lists – is at # 15, right between Pearl Jam (meh) and Urge Overkill (ditto) is Amsterdam’s Bettie Serveert, with their debut album Palomine.
Having your greatest achievement right out of the gate must be an epic burden. Just imagine having to climb the same mountain every time you composed a new song, wrote a new novel, shot a new film. And that, I imagine, is the burden of Bettie Serveert. Palomine is just about perfect, a serendipitous concoction of crystalline vocals and guitar feedback, held together by a sturdy and rocking rhythm section. Both moody and raucous, Palomine showed up on more Best of the Year lists than merely the Village Voice’s. Then, for the most part, never again.
And one can’t really blame Bettie Serveert for that. They consistently do very well that which they do. If you love their sound, then more power to you. If you’re only moderately interested, well, you already have your copy of Palomine, take care now, talk again soon. If you don’t care for it all then why are you even reading this? At any rate, I count myself as a fan, someone who finds every release of theirs to be worthy even if never again the world-beater that they put out in 1992.
The funny thing is that for years I’ve been under the impression that the primary attraction of the Betties was lead singer Carol Van Dijk, who can go from melancholic to just-at-the-edge-of-over-strident in a matter of seconds. It’s an instantly recognizable voice, one that I’ve always enjoyed, be it live or on studio recordings. But I’ve come to realize the true secret weapon of Bettie Serveert is not Carol Van Dijk at all, but rather Peter Visser, the band’s stoic, gangly lead guitarist. From Palomine right up through their previous most recent album, 2012’s Oh, Mayhem, Visser’s catalogue of snaky leads, growling riffs and assorted squeaks and squawks have proven just as crucial as van Dijk’s voice to Bettie Serveert’s sound though it is never gratuitous or anything less than essential. Damaged Good is no different and another solid addition to their output.
Things get off to a bright start with “B-Cuz”, a start and stop rocker that balances soft and hard in a manner of which the Who would be proud. And speaking of The Who: while Bettie’s 1992 radio hit “Kid’s Alright” merely paraphrased that title, “B-Cuz” actually nicks, albeit very briefly, a direct quote both lyrically and melodically.
On “Brickwall”, more a fragmentary lament than a full song, Van Dijk crawls into a lower register until she almost moaning the blues. “Brickwall/forehead/and me” she sings and you can’t get a much bleaker visual than that. At song’s end, 1:10 later, one wants to punch out the lights of whoever is messing with her. Before music-related violence can initiate, however, the Betties are into “Brother (in Loins)”, a propulsive bit of advice for the lovelorn with Visser’s hypnotic guitar line and plaintive lead adding to the romantic drama that permeates Damaged Good. “Digital Sin (nr 7)” is something of a rock and roll epic, eight minutes long with several movements that culminate into an aural tornado, making this the Bettie’s equivalent of “Stairway to Heaven” or “Bohemian Rhapsody”.
While Van Dijk’s signature voice is a hallmark of the Bettie’s sound, I’ve occasionally longed for a second voice with which she might harmonize or duet. Neither Visser nor bassist Herman Bunskoeke offer much in the way of vocals either in the studio or in the band’s fiery live performances. Which is why it sounds so damned good when Peter te Bos of fellow Dutch band, Claw Boys Claw, joins in on “Love Sick.” With a ragged voice that sounds like John Cale threatening you with hammer, he brings a certain psychotic third dimension to the standard Bettie Serveert sound.
“Never Be Over” closes the album with the quietest song of the bunch, a simple acoustic tune accompanied by a string quartet that could have been a mid-Sixties pop classic by Nancy Sinatra or Dusty Springfield. Just lovely, a fitting close for a band celebrating 25 years of existence and still going strong – never be over? Here’s hoping!
Damaged Good is available by mail-order at http://www.bettieserveert.com/store.html and on itunes at https://itunes.apple.com/nl/album/damaged-good/id1162716565