Tiptoeing Through the Tulips
The song that introduced Carol van Dijk, vocalist and guitarist for Bettie Serveert, to the pop-music audience as a whole was 1992's "Tomboy." The tune's title is an appropriate one; on it, the singer's voice exudes a friendly, genderless, Huck Finn quality. Dust Bunnies, her band's latest album, indicates a certain ripening of this attribute, but while rage, humor and sexuality are newly evident in her tone, the overall effect is a subtle one. Quintessential tomboy van Dijk hasn't matured with the dramatic aplomb of the girl with the most cake, but rather by quiet degrees.
"I wanted to try different stuff," van Dijk explains. "So I had two singing lessons before we went into the studio--because I had never had singing lessons before but thought I could use them just to be aware of certain things I could do or should not do. Even though it was only two lessons, I learned that you could scream without hurting your vocal cords.
"Also, about a year ago, I used a very low voice on a song that didn't make it on the record but will probably be released later in the year," she continues. "And the guys said, 'Why don't you try to use that darker voice or lower voice more often?' because they liked it. I was surprised, but I said, 'Sure, why not?'"
Such an attitude exemplifies the best of Dust Bunnies. Although sections of the album go where the band has gone numerous times previously, others find van Dijk pushing guardedly into virgin territory. While in the studio, she experimented with new voices--some sultry, others irate--and allowed her singing to be subjected to some discreet studio tinkering for "Heaven," the lovely reverie that closes the disc. "Most of the songs on the record were recorded in this huge studio hall," she notes. "But they had a very small chamber next to it where they usually put the drummer, because the drummer has to be separate during the recording--which we didn't do, because most of the recording was live. But for this particular song, we needed a different space, a different sound. It had to be more intimate. So we all got together inside this smaller room and we hooked up a microphone on the ceiling, and before we started playing, we just gave it a push so that the mike was swinging around throughout this tiny room. I'm not sure if you can hear it, but it probably adds to the strange atmosphere. We were just having fun. And then the producer put a lot of reverb on the vocals, and because it's on the vocals, it's everywhere over the whole song. We thought, 'Yes! This is the way it should sound.' It almost sounds like you're in heaven--in this huge space."
Given this sense of adventure, it's no surprise that Bettie Serveert sprang fully formed from the thigh of de Artsen, a group comprised of art students from Arnhem, Holland; Peter Visser and Herman Bunskoeke played guitar and bass for the band, while Berend Dubbe was its first roadie and van Dijk served as the collective's live mixer. A native of Vancouver who grew up with five dogs and no neighbors, van Dijk moved to Holland at age seven, and her fluency in English as well as Dutch helped enhance the group's appeal. "My parents did speak Dutch, but not when we were living in Canada; they always spoke English to me," she remembers. "I started to learn to speak Dutch when we moved to Holland, and even then it took me many years to learn it, because it's a very difficult language. At home we sometimes continued speaking English because it was easier for my sister and me. Dutch has all these"--she makes several sounds that suggest a person trying to dislodge a popcorn hull from the back of his throat--"and a rolling 'r.' I speak very fluent Dutch, but sometimes people still have to correct my Dutch."
Not while singing, though: Her guileless lyrics have always been in English. Combine this fact with Visser's corrosive guitar noodlings, which edge right up to wank status, and the sweet bombastic choruses that subsume them both, and you've got a flavor that's decidedly American. Matador Records heads Gerard Cosloy and Chris Lombardi understood this almost immediately. They attended Bettie Serveert's fourth-ever gig, at an Amsterdam club, and subsequently signed the band to a long-term contract. Their commitment was rewarded first with "Tomboy" and later with the 1992 long-player Palomine, from which the single emerged. Critics slobbered all over the sunny disc, which had just enough Mascis-messy guitar and pop perfection to qualify as an alternative-rock must-have just as the category was showing early signs of disease.
By contrast, the quartet's follow-up CD, Lamprey, fell on jaded ears. That's unfortunate, for while the album tended to sprawl in places, it also offered cheering signs of diversification. "21 Days," for example, exhibited a spare intensity that had more in common with Kristen Hersh's odes to psychosis than with the stylistic shrugs that marked van Dijk's previous confessional forays. Still, many listeners nostalgic for the drowsy simplicity and endless summer of the group's debut saw Lamprey as proof of a sophomore slump. Today, van Dijk concedes that "Peter and I had certain doubts about Lamprey." But, she adds, "it wasn't about the songs. It was more the whole thing around it, like all the pressure that was going on in the studio and the fact that most of the songs were written in the studio. After the record was finished and we went on tour, we discovered that there was a lot of stuff that we started changing. If we had had the chance to play them live before we went into the studio, we would have done that already. The first song on Lamprey, 'Keepsake,' starts off with this long guitar intro. Well, one of the first things we did when we went on tour was to chop off the whole intro and go right into the song.
"Some bands prefer writing stuff in the studio," she goes on, "and to then go out and play them live. But for us it's a lot better if everything's finished before we go into the studio. Because that way, you can totally focus on just recording the songs and trying to get them the way you want to and not having to wear two different hats at the same time. There has to be some time in between to think about them."
Bettie boosters certainly think a great deal of the more carefully planned Dust Bunnies, in large part because it contains a handful of tunes that recall the hazy golden days of Palomine. The cuts chosen by the powers that be for video production all fall into this category, and van Dijk sees no reason to fight in favor of putting riskier tunes in the spotlight. "We made a video yesterday for 'Rudder,'" she reveals. "We've made a video for 'Co-coward' as well, and in Europe we made a video for 'What Friends?' We wanted to release 'Co-coward' anyway as a first single, but in England we're with a different record company, and they felt much stronger towards 'What Friends?' And we were like, 'Okay, that's fine with us,' because we like all the songs on the record. So no matter what they choose, it's always okay with us."
Such nonchalance is typical of the band's collective disposition, but not of Bryce Goggin, who produced Dust Bunnies at Bearsville Studios in Woodstock, New York. As van Dijk puts it, Goggin, whose resume includes work with Pavement and Chavez, "never set out to change the band or change our sound that much. But what he did was made us aware of what we were playing--our individual notes. In the past we had the tendency to play a lot of notes at the same time, all four of us, which kind of clogs up the whole song. But we did a couple of days of pre-production before we went into the studio, and Bryce would be standing in the middle with his imaginary whip--and a good sense of humor. After we would be playing the song, he would go, 'You! Why are you playing this part when the rest of the band is playing that?' He even sent Peter and I back to the hotel once with a rhythm box and said, 'Go practice.' We were like, 'What? What do you mean? We can play rhythm!'
"It was tough sometimes," van Dijk admits. "It's hard when you've been playing together for so many years and all of a sudden this outsider says, you know, you're not playing in rhythm. But he was right--so it was a great learning experience."
Clearly, this tomboy has realized that growing up isn't so bad after all.
Wilco, with Bettie Serveert. 8 p.m. Saturday, May 17, Ogden Theatre, 935 East Colfax, $13/$14, 830-2525 or 1-800-444-SEAT; Sunday, May 18, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th Street, Boulder, $16, 443-3399 or 830-
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