Graded on a Curve: Bettie Serveert, Palomine

In 1992, Bettie Serveert seemed to come out of nowhere with their fantastic debut Palomine. Due to the band’s considerable acumen and their sharp absorption of enduring influences and motifs, it’s a record that’s aged like a prize-winning vino, as alive with ideas now as it was approximately 22 years ago.  

The subject of Dutch rock frequently revolves around such names as Golden Earring, Focus, and Shocking Blue, mainly because they all scored international hits. Shocking Blue’s “Venus” was a #1 smash in ’69, (though many know it through its cover by Bananarama, which also rose to #1 in ‘86) and both Golden Earring and Focus broke into the US Singles Top Twenty in ’73 with “Radar Love” (#13) and “Hocus Pocus” (#9) respectively.

Toss in The Tea Set’s “Ma Belle Amie” (#5 in ’70), the George Baker Selection’s “Little Green Bag” (#21 in ’69, later to achieve retro fame via its inclusion on the soundtrack to Quentin Tarantino’s directorial debut Reservoir Dogs) and Golden Earring’s belated return to the US chart with “Twilight Zone” (#5 in ’82), and the rudiments of the Dutch rock discussion (for most non-natives, anyway) are laid out pretty well, at least in commercial terms.

But for listening enjoyment, the only artists in the above scenario that give me any kind of sustained pleasure are Shocking Blue and the ‘60s Golden Earring material (when they were known as The Golden Earrings.)To get to the prime Dutch goods, there is a need to dig a bit deeper, and doing so will reveal a handful of quite worthy ‘60s era outfits from the Nederbeat scene (essentially the Dutch equivalent to Freakbeat) such as The Outsiders (not to be confused with the US act that hit with “Time Won’t Let Me”), Q65, Group 1850, Cuby & the Blizzards, and yeah, The Golden Earrings, too.

Before that was Indorock, a fusion of Indonesian and Western styles that basically served as the beginnings of Dutch rock music, the form exemplified by master showmen The Tielman Brothers (search YouTube for footage of their six minute tour de force of virtuoso rockabilly “Rollin Rock” and prepare to be slain.)

Jumping forward to the punk era uncovers a raggedy assload of fleetingly great 45s by names like Panic (“Requiem for Martin Heidegger”), Filth (“Don’t Hide Your Hate”), Tits (“Daddy is My Pusher”), Mollesters (“Plastic”), Paul Tornado (“Van Aft Casanova”), Helmettes (“Half Twee”) and Subway (“Jesus Loves Me (But I Don’t Care).”) These cuts and more were collected in the ‘90s on a long out of print Euro CD via Epitaph Records titled I’m Sure We’re Gonna Make It, the contents later booted on a 2LP named Killed by Epitaph. It stands as one of the best installments from the Killed by Death series of punk comps.

And speaking of punk, there’s The Ex, who after some thought is probably my pick for the greatest Dutch rock group of all time. However, finalizing a nomination for the best Dutch album ever would prove a little trickier, though a certain contender would be the ’92 debut from Bettie Serveert. Arriving out of the clear blue sky in the year directly following the Grunge explosion, Palomine was an immediate breath of fresh air.

While issued in the US by Matador and easily classified as indie rock, a big part of the record’s appeal was due to how its sonic threads weren’t stitched into any of the numerous style pockets (the aforementioned Grunge, Riot Grrl, late-period noise-rock, resurgent indie pop) that were concurrently making such big waves in the scene.

Instead, Palomine simply registered as an exquisite hunk of melodic guitar rock fronted by highly expressive and full throated female vocals. And it was a startlingly mature release for a debut, one that lacked any traces of two recurring indie rock themes, slapdash execution or thematic triteness. Rather, they played like they’d been around as a unit since 1988, displaying the kind of unified commitment familiar to many acts from the ‘80s underground, groups that just happened to provide a direct inspiration for much of the ensuing indie uprising.

Prior to Bettie Serveert’s emergence lead guitarist Peter Visser had been a member of De Artsen with his brother Joost, the band releasing Conny Waves with a Shell in ’89. It’s a strong, intermittently great LP with a cult following that deserves a higher profile in the present, but Palomine is a much different affair stylistically.

And a great portion of that structural distance is established by the singing of Carol van Dijk. While album opener “Leg” begins quietly in balladic mode, the intensity in her voice is quickly apparent, with the warmth and emotional range of the delivery based upon a tradition that’s fairly distinct from the period’s other femme indie rock vocalists. Though it didn’t immediately jump out at me, the comparison others have made between van Dijk and Chrissie Hynde is a smart one.

It emphasizes van Dijk’s general lack of iconoclastic or abrasive tendencies a la Patti or Exene or Poly Styrene and links her to a more conventional method, though it’s far from easy to lump her into one particular line of precedent. For instance, where Hynde’s work in The Pretenders is accurately described as pop-rock in flavor, Bettie Serveert is better assessed as a full-fledged rock unit sporting deft melodic qualities, with van Dijk’s thrust holding a rawer edge overall (she also contributes guitar to the whole of their sound.)

And “Leg” defines the situation very well. Starting in a decidedly reserved place, as the six-minute track progresses the music grows in volume and dexterity, with Visser’s lead guitar shaping up as a top-flight descendent of Neil Young’s work in Crazy Horse. In addition, the rhythm section of bassist Herman Bunskoeke and drummer Berend Dubbe stand as a terrifically dexterous unit of weighty propulsion, with Dubbe especially sharp at conveying the song’s sly dynamic shifts as he gives his kit an often manic workout.

Next is the title track, and while it’s somewhat brighter and more consistently pop focused, it finds them remaining in the setting that serves them best, specifically a mid-tempo zone where the pace-changing instrumental flights gradually become more raucous as they intertwine expertly with van Dijk’s impassioned but assured vocals. But with the faster paced “Kid’s Allright,” Bettie Serveert offer up a valuable diversity that connects like the realization of the fitful promise found in the work of predecessors Throwing Muses.

On “Kid’s Allright,” van Dijk’s voice is edgy and large in the mix as the guitars locate a vibrant mid-way point between lively strum and tough amp burn. Then comes another shrewd extended slow-build exercise in rise-and-fall dynamics with “Brain-Tag” (though only on the CD; in the UK Guernica Records’ vinyl pressing located the song on a bonus 7-inch that accompanied the vinyl LP.)

Musically, the gist isn’t that far from some of Built to Spill’s output from just a short time later, specifically at the five-minute mark when everything drops out save for Dubbe’s cymbal in preparation for a wicked load of Visser’s unleashed guitar scrawl. But differentiating it from the larger tide of post-Crazy Horse action is the increasingly unique cadence of the Canadian born but Netherlands raised van Dijk. And just as importantly, it’s the seriousness of the lyrics, in this case achieving maximum impact through the line “feel familiar and I want to feel some more/have I ever laid my hands on you before?”

With “Tom Boy,” they splash down into an environment that’s lightly reminiscent of early Blake Babies, but again with van Dijk’s throaty drawl, here perhaps most comparable to Hynde, bringing the number a welcome discreteness. And this atmosphere is continued with “Under the Surface,” which excels as a pretty yet gnawing slice of distorted popish guitar rock.

This leads straight into Palomine’s highpoint, the crisply moving and explosive “Balentine.” The guitars strum and rip as Dubbe smacks his skins with loose authority and Bunskoeke anchors the momentum with panache. It’s an outstandingly rowdy song that culminates in a scorching unraveling of Visser’s guitar, but it also presents a lyrical picture of frustrated love that cuts deep, most of all when van Dijk ruefully sings “Balentine, well it hurts me sometimes/to think that you and I have wasted all this time.”

“This Thing Nowhere” sees them navigating a solid tune with just a hint of Dinosaur Jr. in the recipe, an ingredient that makes sense given the importance of Crazy Horse on their sound. But with “Healthy Sick,” they take a slight detour into territory notably shoegazey, with the track roughly congruent to the heft of guitar based UK acts such as Lush and Ride. Interestingly, it’s also the briefest entry on the album.

And it directly precedes the longest, the excellent return to skilled tension-and-release that is “Sundazed to the Core,” though at the five-minute mark it suddenly appears to become a different song entirely. How crafty. And while their collective talent on their instruments might be Palomine’s single strongest attribute, without their constantly impressive songwriting the attack would obviously be significantly lesser.

But then again, the closer also reveals their ability in varying the shape of individual compositions. Presenting two contrasting versions of the same tune on one album is frankly a very risky maneuver, but “Palomine (Small)” works very effectively as a coda to an LP that was amongst the best of 1992, and furthermore one of the finest debuts from the entire decade.

In fact it’s a record so good that Bettie Serveert has never equaled it. Their next two, ‘95’s Lamprey and ‘97’s Dust Bunnies, both released in the US by Matador, are sturdy and at times very good efforts, but neither encompasses the heights of their inaugural long-playing statement. Subsequently, seven full-lengths have appeared (including a live one composed of all Velvet Underground covers), with some slightly better than others, and the latest being the hit-and-miss Oh, Mayhem! LP from last year.

Palomine may not be the greatest Dutch rock record of all time (I guess I’d award that title to something by The Ex), but it does come very close. Far too many indie rock albums betray their flash-in-the-pan status by losing their spark in a relatively brief time span, but Bettie Serveert’s first one has kept all of its intelligence, energy, and emotional resonance. The reason for its success lies in how the band was clearly disinterested in leaping upon bandwagons in favor of just creating some timeless rock ‘n’ roll.


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