The original intention of this column was to listen to all the records in my collection in alphabetical order by album title. I’ve abandoned that for the most part. But I’ll come back to it periodically.
The title of this record should clue you in to what it’s all about.
Got it? Yep, it’s a record of Velvet Underground covers, played by perennial 1990s indie rock underdogs Bettie Serveert. Why underdogs? They had one minor jangle pop hit with “Tom Boy” from their 1992 debut Palomine for Matador, then pretty much fell off the radar even though they continue to exist in some form even today, having released Pharmacy of Love in 2010. They must have some sort of following, maybe more so in their native Holland and otherwise abroad than anywhere else. Certainly not in the United States – anybody hear anything from them after their Palomine follow-up Lamprey? That record was the big disappointment, and their last for Matador. I never heard it. I’d warrant you never did either.
Suffice it to say, somebody’s listening, and in 1998 the band took a left turn as far as a normal band’s discography would go, and released the coolly retro-titled Bettie Serveert Plays Venus in Furs and Other Velvet Underground Songs. On the surface, there’s nothing really wrong about this – musicians have released covers of other musicians’ material since the dawn of the modern music industry. (And well before that, but we’ll stay somewhat current here.) However, under the hyper-scrutiny of Internet-age music journalism’s high-powered microscope, reinterpretations are held to a wildly high standard. Consider also that the subject of this record is the hallowed Velvet Underground, making it exponentially more difficult for Bettie Serveert to achieve a modicum of success. Hoo boy. Yes, they have quite a bit to live up to.
The band has a few things going for them as they shoot for respectability in digging through the catalog of Mssrs. Reed and Cale. One is that …Plays… is recorded as a live event, in hopes, we must assume, that the setting would serve to capture the energy of the source material. Another is that vocalist Carol van Dijk sounds like a female version of Lou Reed, her alto hitting all the right world-weary touchstones necessary for the tunes (although she doesn’t quite approximate Nico quite as thoroughly). A third is that the band had been around a long time, even by 1998 (they formed in 1986), so the musicianship and interplay is top notch. Add to this that their original output obviously drew inspiration from VU, and you should have a fairly uncomplicated recipe for success.
And that’s pretty much what we get here – uncomplicated, unfussy, and unpretentious. Bettie Serveert rips through their set with glee, obviously reveling in their opportunity to do justice to the band and the songs they love. It’s interesting – and it’s a nice move, if you ask me – that instead of releasing an album of covers by different artists like many bands tend to do, the Dutch indie rockers chose a single band to cover all the way through. As such, it plays like a more cohesive whole than something like, I dunno, any album called Covers released by an artist in a moment of misplaced nostalgia. Like Placebo. Or James Taylor. So it actually sounds like a Bettie Serveert album, which is a nice touch.
Look, you can’t fault the source material, even if you’re not up for the experiment. And van Dijk and crew really rip through the tunes, sending “Beginning to See the Light,” “What Goes On,” and “I Can’t Stand It” through the roof in energetic blasts. They give “European Son” and “Rock & Roll” 8-plus-minute treatments, displaying their VU-esque sloppy jam muscle in the process. It’s quite a feat to hew so closely to the original aesthetic. The frontwoman’s voice is a little too husky for “Stephanie Says” and “Sunday Morning,” though, and “Venus in Furs” sounds a bit … off at points. But van Dijk is a nice foil on “After Hours,” which succinctly and appropriately wraps the set.
There is nothing flashy at all about Bettie Serveert Plays Venus in Furs…, and I don’t think that was the intention in the least. I don’t even think the record was released stateside, as it probably would have received zero marketing support. As a merch table impulse buy, though, it’s perfect. Obviously, the originals are superior, which is almost always the case (and if you’re like me, I know exactly which song you’re thinking of that transcends the original – guess in the comments!), but the fact that Bettie Serveert decided to do this as a live record mitigates that fact a bit, requiring less scrutiny from us stuffy critics. We can actually have quite a bit of fun with this record, and I don’t mind saying that at all.
RIYL: The Velvet Underground, Buffalo Tom, Belly