Back in the early '90s, Bettie Serveert's classic debut, Palomine, was a swig of pure spring water after the sugary fizz of countless girl-fronted alt-pop acts (Belly, Velocity Girl, Juliana Hatfield Three and so on). Hailing from the Netherlands, wide-eyed ingenue Carol van Dyk's wistful take on the girl/boy thing--"Tom Boy"--captured the mood of the times. Van Dyk's smoldering alto would swoop to high notes, her "you're-reading-my-journal" confessional lyrics adding an emotional depth to the band's guitar pop.
But the charm and critical acclaim of their debut proved hard to follow. By their disappointing third album, Dust Bunnies, Matador/Capitol dropped the band. Elsewhere in the music industry, female-fronted bands flickered briefly and disappeared. But the Betties, discovered almost as a fluke when a friend sent Matador their demo, were never stalking "fame" to begin with. Without a label, they were free to live up to their own expectations instead of the industry's--in effect, to remember why they became a band in the first place.
The result is Private Suit, released on the band's own Palomine Records through Hidden Agenda (licensed by Parasol in the United States). It's a record the band couldn't have made 10 years ago: van Dyk's nuanced, mature vocal performances are the difference between a decent glass of port and a truly rich late-bottle vintage, a far cry from her stage-shy early days.
Transformed from indie naïf to torch singer, van Dyk is in control, both lyrically and vocally. She's also been taking voice lessons. "She's learned to use her falsetto without 'flipping' her voice in the middle," explains founding member/guitarist Peter Visser in a heavy Dutch accent. (He's on a cell phone outside a Georgia diner, no doubt bemoaning the lack of decent pancakes here in the States.) Ironically, van Dyk started as the soundperson for Visser's band De Artsen before discovering she had a knack for lyrics and a gorgeous singing voice. But performing live was a hurdle for the legendarily shy front-woman. Visser says that on an early English tour opening for Dinosaur Jr., van Dyk and J. Mascis stood next to each other--wanting to talk--but ended up staring at their shoes. "Carol's a lot better now," Visser says regarding van Dyk's reticence at being a pop star.
The band is currently on tour with Live and old friends the Counting Crows. Although they've performed with the Crows in the past, it's the first time the Betties have tried "arena" rock, taking the first slot as audience members stand in line or look for their seats. Gone is the immediacy of the club audience--many opening acts play to rows of empty chairs.
"We're lucky. [Crows singer] Adam Duritz comes on stage with us and says, 'This is a very good band and they're friends of mine so pay attention,'" says Visser, laughing. I ask if they've started using arena-type theatrics: jumping off wedges, scissors kicks and the like.
"No, that's Live [emotive, chewin' up the scenery band with bird-chested lead singer]," he says. "They have a, uh, different approach to music," he adds, diplomatically. The Crows offered them the standard opening fee, which the now self-contained band (no tour support or label backing) couldn't afford. So the Crows doubled the money. "I said, 'we'll be right over,'" Visser recalls.
Private Suit showcases a new, sophisticated side of the band. The cover features a classically provocative pose by a bare-shouldered van Dyk--sort of a chiaroscuro cross between a Dutch Masters painting and a retro pulp-fiction cover. I ask if it's homage to a particular work. "No," Visser says, laughing. "It's actually just a photo of Carol taken by Reiner [new drummer Reiner Veldman] inspired by American '50s paperback covers; it's also inspired by Velasquez." The photo is a tip-off to the album's content: sparse arrangements with van Dyk's smoky, throaty vocals up front.
The songs have a lingering taste of sadness--the smoke left when the person with the cigarette leaves the room and all you've got is their hazy impression. Van Dyk's lyrics examine love with all its overwhelming imperfections: the desire to lose control, the fear of achieving it. "I can leave my feelings anywhere I damn well please," van Dyk sings on "My Fallen Words," where she concludes, "anything could happen to me."
The album's songwriting style transcends the band's former penchant for alternating strummy and noisy parts within each song. Also, for the first time, Visser and bassist Herman Bunskoeke are adding backing vocals (both live and on the album), creating a Velvet Underground flavor. I ask if--by returning to the town of Weesp--they were trying to recapture the mood of Palomine, the record that broke them in the States.
"The studio in Weesp is about 30 minutes outside Amsterdam," says Visser. "It's the famous old Dureco studio where, in the '70s, a lot of very big hits were recorded." ("Dutch hits" may seem like an oxymoron until you remember "Radar Love" and "Hocus Pocus.") "It's not where we recorded Palomine, although that studio is just a stone's throw away," Visser says. "The vibe comes from yourself; it's not located within four walls."
Enlisting producer John Parrish (PJ Harvey, Giant Sand) the album sparkles with the gorgeously full, non-typical string arrangements of Belgium's Lenski Brothers (of D.A.A.U.), adding a new depth and timbre to the Betties' sound. "They [the Lenskis] can play in any style," explains Visser. "Classical music lessons can work," he adds with a laugh. All the elements meshed to create the Betties' strongest work yet.
In the Netherlands, they have these things called stroopwafeles--caramel waffle discs you put on top of your steaming cup of coffee. The steam melts the caramel, resulting in a warm chewy cookie with your jolt of caffeine. Next to these treats, Bettie Serveert--sensual, sweet and substantial enough to sink your teeth into--remain my favorite Dutch import.