Bettie Serveert – Log 22

Cruelly displaced by the collapse of the early-90s college-rock boom, Holland’s Bettie Serveert seemed to slip-off many people’s indie-rock radar sometime after 1997’s disappointing third album, Dust Bunnies, lost them the label backing of both Matador (US) and Beggars Banquet (UK). That’s a shame, because 2000’s John Parish-assisted Private Suit (self-released in Continental Europe, licensed to Parasol Records in the US) was the self-ordained sonic rebirth fans (and record company execs) had been wishing upon the band to keep them artistically afloat amongst the ever evolving musical populace. The mature but playful musical overhaul of Private Suit appropriately harnessed the precious songwriting gift of Carol Van Dyk whilst turning down the overwrought guitar histrionics in favour of more keyboards, subtle strings, and a more spacious studio sound. Undoubtedly buoyed by the creative corner turning of Private Suit, here comes the next much-awaited step forward.
Sadly, however, some of Log 22 feels like a step too far, with the band’s ambitious arrangements falling foul to the limitations of their musical abilities. Forgetting the disciplines of self-editing and clearer production techniques that John Parish brought to them on Private Suit, this self-recorded follow-up appears, in parts, to be cluttered and overblown. Having drafted in an arsenal of string and brass-players into their revised battle-plan, the core Betties – Carol and guitarist Peter Visser – repeatedly march their melancholic-pop into melodramatic orchestrations that too often drown them sound.
Whilst this bigger sound does admittedly bring some benefits to the windswept Buffalo Tom-meets-Bacharach road tripping of “Wide Eyed Fools” and “Have a Heart,” it does do damage elsewhere. Meaning that the disastrous “De Diva” and “The Ocean, My Floor” feel hideously overreaching, with climatic strings and guitar-strangling smothering Carol’s gentle warbling. The otherwise tender torch song “Captain of Maybe” is also undermined by unnecessary synthetic adornments. However, the quieter, less blustered moments do mercifully behave more like natural members of the Bettie Serveert song family. The gorgeous “Cut n Dried” is a particularly fine moment, as it captures Carol cooing more comfortably over plaintive piano fills and baroque violins, re-confirming her status as one of rock’s great-lost comfort blankets. Elsewhere, the gliding space-rock of “Given” shows that the band’s new directions don’t always lead to dead-end dramatics, and the rootsy retro blues-twanging of “White Dogs” is a worthwhile homage to the Stones circa Goats Head Soup.
Although somewhat misjudged, Log 22 is far from being a bad album, and it’s certainly not Bettie Serveert’s biggest faux-pas. There is certainly a seductively beautiful record buried beneath the top-heavy instrumentation and inside the overlong 60-minute running time. Furthermore, a fistful of elegiac gems within implore us to maintain our patience for another potentially great record further down the line, even if this one fails to fully exploit the focus and foresight found by the band in recent years. So please don’t give up on the Betties, just yet.