Indie rock, like most cultural enterprises, is not a meritocracy. Consider Bettie Serveert, the Amsterdam-based outfit fronted by Canadian expat Carol van Dyk. Thirteen years ago, the group ruled the college-radio playlists enchanted critics with debut full-length Palomine, and toured with all the major dudes of the day. Thanks in large part to Bettie Serveert, Matador became the label of choice for hipper-than-thou types; throughout the ’90s, its cred-heavy imprimatur launched influential acts such as Liz Phair and Pavement. Unfortunately, subsequent offerings from its flagship band were much less successful, and, in an act of colossal ingratitude or simple business smarts, Matador dumped Bettie Serveert in 1997.
Although the band’s lineup has fluctuated over the years, the core members remain. Singer/guitarist van Dyk and guitarist Peter Visser, who write the bulk of the songs, stubbornly persist in crafting intelligent, innovative, and woefully underrated guitar pop, even though they’re damned when they sound “like themselves” (that is, themselves circa Palomine) and damned when they don’t: When the thirtysomething members of Wilco mess around with loops and samples, critics call them brave and groundbreaking; when the thirtysomething members of Bettie Serveert so much as look at a drum machine, the same critics say they’re pandering, pathetic old carpetbaggers.
Luckily, Bettie Serveert won’t be deterred by fickle hypocrites. Less than two years after the release of Log 22, a topnotch collection of Velvet Underground-inspired psych-dirges and quirky ballads, the band presents Attagirl, its seventh full-length and first for Minty Fresh. Attagirl is more obviously experimental than its predecessor, but it represents an evolution in the band’s sound rather than an entirely new direction. Whereas Log 22 used keyboards judiciously, mostly for ornamentation and effect, on Attagirl entire songs are constructed around them. With its synthetic strings and rumbling one-note bass line, “Versace” forgoes the band’s characteristic loose-limbed playfulness in favor of brooding Euro-style electropop. Other synth-heavy tunes, such as “Dreamaniacs” and “Greyhound Song,” incorporate the new toys with more subtlety, weaving them through off-kilter guitar hooks and van Dyk’s luminous vocal melodies. Techno-hatas need not panic, however: “Don’t Touch That Dial,” “1 Off Deal,” and “Hands Off” are as infectiously guitar-centric as anything on Palomine, and the CD includes two all-acoustic bonus tracks for those who really, really hate technology. The nicest surprise, though, is the CD’s closing track, a sprawling cover of Bright Eyes’ “Lover I Don’t Have to Love.” van Dyk sings the masochistic lyrics with unusual ferocity, transforming Conor Oberst’s self-pitying paean to anonymous groupie sex into something that’s part indictment, part celebration, and all rock & roll.