Pity Carol Van Dijk—an adult-alternative songstress living in an indie-pop world, via a Dutch rock band. Confounded by the foreign connection, confusion over the spelling/pronunciation and identity of “Bettie Serveert” (a tennis manual), and revolving bandmates, Van Dijk was denied the exalted realm of ’90s mainstream femme-rock. That’s where (alongside Sheryl’s neo-California platitudes) Alanis’s blunt demands and Tori’s brutal religious doctrines inched out of rock’s accepted ladylike persona, all the more impressive when bolstered by commercial success. It wasn’t just their exclusive X chromosomes that made their perspective feminine, but also the unabashed way they examined relationships that emo only dreamed of. As much as Ms. Ciccone was an obvious touchstone, how their public ventings of private torments were captured best on live albums meant Richard Pryor might have been just as much a role model.
The ’90s were also when Serveert came of age. After they scored on the indie circuit with their 1992 debut, Palomine, their momentum was squashed by excessive touring, problematic follow-ups, a Velvets covers record, and a falling-out with Matador. They turned themselves around, though, forming the Palomine label and achieving an agreeable adult late-night pop with 2000’s Private Suit even though their visibility had peaked back when they started. But while Rosanne Cash and the Buzzcocks pin recent comebacks on retreats from the meaningful romantic confusion they once cultivated, Van Dijk still excels in this regard, whether she’s begging, demanding, or self-doubting. On Serveert’s latest salvo, Log 22, she revels in enough obsessive acting-out and emotional havoc for a daytime talk show.
Like Sheryl and Tori, Van Dijk’s pushing 40 and feeling it, with over a decade in the biz. In a recent interview, she described herself relationship-wise as being “free and for the moment, preferring to keep it that way,” underscoring her art/life connection. But while the sweet “Have a Heart,” the hopeless “Captain of Maybe” and the kiss-off “The Love In” could be Crow creations, Sheryl only sounds that frustrated and confused in interviews. Carol’s songs desperately grasp for stability: joking that “I’ll be fine, I’m just losing my mind”; repeating the mantra “keep on smiling”; muttering about the dark, depression, phobia, and suicide. Her reckless indulgences lead to disappointment, and she proudly announces that she’s “going down in style.” Vulnerable voices chirping such sentiments are hardly unknown among the Lilith crowd, but rarely are they so despondent and hard on themselves.
And yet Carol’s able to put over her music and then some. While Serveert came off as a talented indie troop plying its trade back in the day, the varied ways that she and longtime collaborator-guitarist Peter Visser now come up with winning song formulas speaks more of an expansion than commercial desperation—though it may be late to convince old fans. From giddy choruses to whistling hooks to sensual trip-hop to desperate rockers to Velvets chugging to smoky chanteuse atmospheres to guitar workouts over austere-then-soaring strings to dance remixes waiting to happen, these are expert songsmiths showing off their craft, more impressively than ever before.
At a March Southpaw show, Carol said little between songs, as if they were her real communiqués. Oddly, the crowd was full of groping couples, only occasionally hearing Carol’s plaintive lyrics. As someone who wears heart-embroidered sleeves, she’d surely rather join their ranks than provide ironic mood music for them.