- by Mark Moody Rating:9 Release Date:1992-11-30 Label: Matador
I had the good fortune of living in Washington, D.C., for four years in the early 90s. Not only was it the heyday of indie/college rock heroes, but there were two clubs in town attracting incredible touring talent to the burgeoning scene. The older of these, the 9:30 Club was already well established when I moved to town. In a downcast area of F Street (which was ultimately cleared for a basketball arena), the club was in my recollection just an inverted “U-shaped” space that held about 200 people. You basically entered to the right hand side walked down a hall, made a left to a tiny stage, with its view partially blocked by a girder in the middle of the floor, and you could continue on to the other end of the “U” where a small bar awaited. At the 9:30 I somehow stumbled into seeing Wilco on the Being There tour and Yo La Tengo (I believe on the Electro-Pura tour) although I was, and still am, totally enamored with the Painful album and they certainly played most of it. Ira Kaplan was out of his mind on both guitar and organ, sometimes at the same time somehow, and it was one of those indelible slack-jawed concert moments we all have. I think my wife just thought it was noisy, but the band and we are still together.
Across town a newer club, the Black Cat, in a decidedly dodgier area of town, had just opened. D.C. was certainly big enough to host two competing clubs and the Black Cat attracted top talent as well such as The Fall and Pavement (I wouldn’t catch them for a few years yet). One of the bands that I did make my way over to see was Dutch band Bettie Serveert whose debut, Palomine, had recently come out on Matador. This was also the era when record labels like Matador, Sub Pop, Homestead, Flying Nun, and 4AD, as examples, were just assumed to be putting out quality music. So in the absence of YouTube and music streaming services, if you read a good review and it was on one of those labels it was the musical equivalent of a sure thing. I don’t recall if Bettie Serveert (named for an obscure Dutch tennis star) was opening or the headliner, but I do remember they killed it on versions of tracks from the album. And in spite of the preamble here, this post is intended to be a review of their album and inspired twenty five years on by hearing current band Ratboy’s GN and GL releases (short for Good Night and Good Luck). I’m simultaneously reviewing Ratboy’s GL EP in the Album Reviews section of our site as well.
Like Ratboys’ set-up, Bettie Serveert’s leads consist of female lead singer, Carol van Dijk, who also plays guitar, and a blisteringly capable lead guitarist in Peter Visser. The formula for Palomine seems simple, but one of those that is exceedingly impossible to pull off or we would have scores of albums like this to pick from. From van Dijk’s plaintive and sometimes emotionally strained vocals, to the lilting melodies, disenchanted lyrics (also similar to GL), and all surrounded in a swirl of guitar hooks, crunch and solos it's an almost hour long lesson in how to do things right. The opening six tracks in particular (including the at the time CD only cut of ‘Brain-Tag’) are as solid an opening salvo as you can find anywhere.
The album starts off with some lazily droning riffs on ‘Leg’, but when van Dijk stands in a few lines along with “Well here I stand, I don’t feel too good” the discontent becomes evident. When she and Visser’s guitar converge on the line “untie the knot” the song heats up and you can feel the tube amp glow as the guitar unwinds for the balance of the song. Van Dijk’s vocals also pick up some confidence as things flow towards the close and though maybe battered she’s decidedly not beaten. The folkier title song with its jangly guitar follows and that approach is also echoed on the later ‘Under the Surface’. Again van Dijk’s declaration of “how come life sometimes makes you feel so scared” is met with the more optimistic and confident “the sun will always shine on this palomine (the band also favors some inventively spelled words)”.
In spite of the brilliance of these opening songs, the core tracks of ‘Kid’s Allright’ and ‘Tom Boy’ are stunners and as fresh and relevant today as then. That’s particularly the case if guitar based rock is still an acceptable medium and if you don’t think so ‘Kid’s Allright’ should convince you otherwise. Anchored with a supple and somewhat buried bass line and snares, the song starts right off with a snarl of guitar with tortured hooks and riffling. Though Visser’s solos are something to behold, the song never loses its drive and van Dijk is at her most strident recalling adolescent angst: “Playing hooky, pretend we're sick, Momma don't care if it's just a trick, ’Cause she just wishes she never had those kids from hell who drive her mad.” It’s a glorious four plus minutes of what made indie rock so appealing from the pablum that was mainstream rock then and now. The lower key power pop anthem of ‘Tom Boy’ has a maudlin strain of van Dijk resigning herself to an unwanted label, but owning it - “they call me a tom boy and I let them.” I would be disingenuous to not acknowledge the nostalgia of the line “this yellow light on the crowd” recalling the indie shows of the era, but it also puts an empowering twist on the song as van Dijk asserts her position of band leader standing above the fray. The music swells behind her to cement the point.
Other highlights include the sundazed ‘Brain-Tag’, sandwiched between the above two tracks, and the brief but blissfully grungy ‘Healthy Sick’. The whole album is a great debut that I am sure cast a bit of "lightning in a bottle" expectations on the band, but also stands as tribute to the success a DIY group can have if they have the chops and songs to back up the work ethic. Bettie Serveert still soldiers on today performing and writing new music. The Black Cat and relocated 9:30 Club not only still have their doors open but from all appearances are thriving. Hopefully I’ll still be around twenty-five years down the line to not only reminisce on the early 90s D.C. live music scene, but also on the “one-two” punch of Ratboy’s GN and GL releases and their favorable comparison to Palomine. At a minimum, hopefully Ratboys are still around in 2043 touring in their self-driving tour bus and that there is someone else listening to a different new band and recalling how they sounded just like Ratboys did back in the day.
Bettie Serveert are something of a hidden gem, must agree Carol Van Dijk has a great voice for the songs they perform & lead guitarist Peter Visser does the job (White dogs on Log 22 is a fav of mine)
Thanks Jak - appreciate you taking a look. I hadn't heard White Dogs before but sounds pretty cool. Reminds me of 'Waiting For My Man' as it picks up steam.