Bettie Serveert’s new Private Suit insinuated its way into the crevices of my background; it’s moldy and crusty, and grows seemingly unnoticed. I didn’t like it at first. It smelled moist, stale in its complacency. You see, Bettie Serveert used to pack a punch. Back in the Palomine days of 1993, they pounded out a lethal combo of Dutch chutzpah and instrumental magic: feedback festering, lingering between songs. If you took one Indigo Girl (is it possible to get one without the other?), added a fraction of Pavement, then multiplied by Belle and Sebastian (angry and addicted to some type of amphetamine-laced inhaler), you’d get Bettie Serveert’s quirkiness. The quartet used to make noisily diverse albums, alternating punkish power jams and sweet ballad melodies. For the past decade they’ve circled the indie circuit, darlings of intellect radio and music academia. And they’ve finally sculpted their abrasive tunes into a perfectly poetic hum that is both secretly invasive and ethereal in its elasticity.
The way Private Suit layers the strings, harmonies, and gloomy lullabies, it’s like looking at Guernica a thousand times and always seeing some new face or severed horse head pop out of the periphery. The introverted break-up-with-your-boyfriend saga “Unsound,” trumped only by Lili Taylor’s litany of haiku in Say Anything, buries a secret beneath the cool detachment of Carol Van Dyk’s vocals. Finely tuned, stripped-down, Van Dyk basks in rejection—naked, bearing her soul. She’s ripped out her aggressively perky interludes, her toying wink, no longer able to stomach the boy from 1997’s Dust Bunnies, the “kind of guy that lives next door/who’s never been in love before.” Rather than tangle in the seduction of new crushes and record-store romance, she’s spewing out the hurt and frustration of severing a lovelorn limb. Further cementing the undying principle that you either have to be emotionally destroyed or shooting up in an alley to create musical intimacy.
She’s licking her open wounds, confessing that after a Tylenol and an hour’s drive, “I somehow found a reason why I’m still alive . . . and when we fall asleep/don’t wake me up until next week/until I finally get my feet back on the ground/it’s good to be unsound.” The unsound being a melodic silence of no longer speaking to a freshly ex-beau who’s returned to town. So I guess singing to him doesn’t count: Punctuated by contained wails and guitar licks that neither press the issue nor let it go, her throaty, sedated, lazy croon peers around the corner as if spying on itself, not trusting its own assertions. Her nervous words are whimpered, and ululate.
Private Suit is tailored to fit: in your armpits, around fleshy thighs and bulky livers. It cradles the curves of the heart and provides shock absorbers for the divots. “Satisfied” has Van Dyk, in all her bruised delirium, round-robining with herself, traveling in a singsong circle, emanating a lilting, ominous tone of frustration and anxiety, articulating a romance that hurts too much to let go: “Tell me what we are looking for if all we really want is each other?” A guitar itches; a series of strings bellows; her voice resonates. Each song on the album echoes in the cries and menacing rhythms of the previous; her story progresses from sad to angry to sad to free, wondering why “I try to fit my life into a word.”
It would be easy to dismiss Private Suit as solipsistic, middle-aged Muzak on a plateau to nowhere. We’ve all broken up before, and we already know from mopey Michael Stipe that everyone hurts; plus, half the set sounds like B sides of old Bettie Serveert songs. The band can’t resist pumping out clones of “Palomine,” but the screeching and intensity and noisy imbalance of “Kid’s Allright” and “Totally Freaked Out” is gone. The lover is gone too. So the song changes: The concupiscent purring is no longer flaming in feedback, and tracks like “Sower & Seeds” and “Healer” drone on in unquenchable dryness. The absence of gutty grr-rock leaves a tenderness sedated by liquid depression, yet stronger by virtue of survival. Van Dyk smokes the sweet songs with gilded reefers, brooding with furious charm.
What seems like mold in the first few listens actually turns out to be grout: a seamless, stabilizing plaster between tiles. Originally named after Holland tennis sensation Bettie Stove (serveert means “serves”), Bettie Serveert almost seem to have evolved into one of those ultratanned Florida fogies who play tennis by planting pods immobile in the ground and settling for swinging stellar—one of those players who, when balls fly by, can still hit a zinger, but couldn’t cross the court if bit by a Gila monster. Mainly, though, they’ve chosen to maintain their stroke.
Bettie Serveert play the Bowery Ballroom October 22 and Maxwell’s October 25.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 17, 2000