wears the trousers magazine

bettie serveert: pharmacy of love (2010)
January 11, 2010, 8:58 am
Filed under: album, review | Tags: , ,

Bettie Serveert
Pharmacy Of Love •••½

There’s something rather beautiful about the way that Bettie Serveert refuse to fade away. College radio stars in the early ’90s, they helped to establish Matador Records as an independent force to be reckoned with, but few might have foreseen them outlasting their more famous labelmates. But while Pavement dissolved in comical acrimony and Liz Phair’s integrity evaporated with her exile in mainstream, Bettie Serveert have quietly gone about their own business. Sure they’ve lost members – Pharmacy Of Love features at least their fifth drummer since the original quit in 1998 – and charismatic frontwoman Carol van Dyk took time out to be a country singer, but here they are 18 years later, in 2010, still curiously relevant in a curiously unacknowledged way.

Having taken stock of their career with 2006’s part-retrospective Bare Stripped Naked, a solid, back-to-basics acoustic album, the band claim again to have started from the ground up with Pharmacy Of Love, a back-to-basics record in the sense that it sometimes bristles with an energy that could almost be described as youthful if it wasn’t for van Dyk’s considerably warmer, mellower tone. First single ‘Deny All’ might erupt at a galloping pace, with van Dyk doing her best to sound like a brat, but by and large the album is a seasoned collection of nicely nuanced indie-rock. Highlights include ‘Love Lee’ and the one-two hit of ‘The Pharmacy’ and ‘Souls Travel’, the former’s biting procession of surging drums and shoegaze guitars snapping at the heels of the latter’s Rilo Kiley-like breeziness, while the album’s obvious anomaly is ‘Calling’. Easing in on a crest of eerie keyboard sounds that give way to distant, siren-like electric guitar wails, it takes just over four minutes to really get started, but then van Dyk opens her throat and all is forgiven. All but the decision to fade out at the end; having built up the tension for almost ten minutes, no proper conclusion feels like cheating.

No such problems with ‘Change4Me’ though, which resolves in the fireside glow of a respectfully singed yearning. A burnished, tender discourse on love’s illusions, given an alt-country feel with some simple plucked banjo, it has shades of Jenny Lewis, again, and the first A Camp record. But the sudden jolt that plunges us into closing number ‘What They Call Love (Loud Version)’ – subtitled to distinguish from Bare Stripped Naked‘s acoustic original – erases any such comparisons, van Dyk’s vocal fizzing with attitude as the drums roll and lurch beneath a coaxing bassline, a repetitive one-note piano line and some airy electric guitar, defying conventional song structures to deliver a tight, brave finale.

Twenty-four years after they first came together (and then promptly split after just one show, only to reform a few years later), the evolution of Bettie Serveert continues in the right direction. It’s hard not to feel some affection towards them. If love is the drug then Bettie Serveert are smuggling the pillbox.

Alan Pedder
UK release date: 11/01/10; www.myspace.com/bettieserveert


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