It’s not as if Dutch rock completely sucked before Bettie Serveert — if nothing else, the recorded evidence of the band’s immediate predecessor, De Artsen, puts paid to that — but when a country’s greatest international contributions are Golden Earring, Focus and the Nits, low expectations can be understood. The very idea that a quartet from Amsterdam should make a year’s best indie-rock album (’92, when the debut arrived in the UK) upends basic premises on which international culture rests. Good.
Between the carefully arranged seduction of Canadian-born Carol van Dijk’s lyrical, faintly accented English vocals and the smeary aggression of Peter Visser’s piercing guitar leads, Palomine achieves an uncanny standoff of passions rare in pop music. Without stepping outside its powerfully melodic setting or sounding anything but casual in the practice of its pop craft, Bettie Serveert (the name comes from the title of a tennis instruction book authored by onetime Wimbledon contender Betty Stöve) manages whisper-to-a-scream (and right back again) transitions better than anyone. The group subtly rides the intensity faders from folky guitar strums and drummer Berend Dubbe’s light-fingered rhythms to raging storms of Crazy Horse-channeling-Tom Verlaine noise, making each song a thrilling series of unexpected emotional events. In the album-opening “Leg,” Visser’s searing rock intensity creeps up on van Dijk’s gentle strums and airy singing like a pickpocket. It’s an ominous shadow in the background through the second verse, rising up in curls of lead smoke and then exploding over vibrant organ chords swells as she slings her defiance like a cudgel: “You won’t have me worried/I can still take care of myself somehow.” In the sturdy and distinctive songs, musical complications amplify the quirky uncertainties of van Dijk’s plainspoken lyrics, recollections-with misgivings about decisions long since made-about childhood (“Tom Boy,” “Kid’s Alright”), love (“Brain-Tag,” “Leg”) and the blurry lines between friendship and romance (“Balentine,” “Palomine”). “It’s under the surface and it’s up in the sky/That’s why you won’t reach it so don’t even try…”
The excellent four-song Tom Boy EP (with the disturbing unwashed and somewhat slightly dazed cover photo of bassist Herman Bunskoeke’s girlfriend) includes a wistful semi-acoustic version of “Balentine,” a careening demo of the non-LP “Maggot” and the top-notch but otherwise unreleased “Smile.”
Poorly modulated production screws up the band’s dynamic tension on Lamprey, maintaining an action-packed energy level that just can’t settle itself down to the hushed sparseness of Palomine‘s most enticing moments. Even during quiet passages, there’s too much going on; instrumental restlessness keeps getting the better of the band. That’s no impediment to the hectic “Totally Freaked Out,” but it diminishes the sonic ironies of “Crutches” and “Keepsake,” turning songs that could have been magnificent plain. The songwriting on Lamprey shows no slackoff — if less imagination is evident in the chord structures, there’s no shortage of affecting melodies or engaging lyrics. (The most notable is “Something So Wild,” a volatile spew of disdain for another woman’s overbearing boyfriend.) Still, the second album labors where the first danced; the band simply rocks out when it used to think twice and then hold back. Track for track, the songs hold up to Palomine‘s extraordinary standard, but as a totality, add up to less. And while both albums present the same number of songs in the same amount of time, Lamprey seems to take a lot longer. (The 10-inch of “Crutches,” a song for which Come is profusely thanked for its guitar riff, contains two non-LP B-sides, the piano ballad “Shades” and the sedately electric “Entire Races,” both of which are quite lovely.)
De Artsen, which existed throughout the second half of the ’80s and contained Visser and Bunskoeke (Dubbe was the quartet’s roadie), was primarily a vehicle for Peter’s brother, singer/random lyricist Joost Visser. (While in de Artsen, Peter and Herman also played in an early incarnation of Bettie Serveert as a side project with de Artsen’s sound mixer, Carol van Dijk.) Intriguing and promising but not exactly good, Conny Waves With a Shell betrays familiar traces of guitar and bass (and, inexplicably, rhythmic) technique and otherwise bears scant resemblance to its members’ future endeavors. Despite Joost’s squawky, unaccented voice and a dry tone influenced by somber auteurs like Lloyd Cole, Nick Cave, Dan Stuart and Tom Verlaine, the album finds poetic grace in such Americanized creations as “10 Grains,” “Miss Understood” and the echoey ’60s drone of “She’s in Love.” A nifty cover of Daniel Johnston’s “Hey Joe” indicates a mindset impossible to glean from anything else on the record.
So it makes a perfect kind of sense that Joost’s post-de Artsen solo album should display some of the self-contained alienated inexplicability of Johnston’s work. With ambient noise cropping up everywhere, the arduous Partners in Hair consists of nineteen simply recorded tracks, some using a band (reproducing the driving monotony of de Artsen, but with both hands off the steering wheel), the rest solo on acoustic guitar. In the latter category, the appealing folk sound of “Fingers in the Wind,” “Press Your Lips” and “Some Use the Mekons” contrasts strongly with the strange and oblique lyrical assertions.