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BETTY: Love, Sex, Food and Politics

Mountain Xpress
Weekly Independent News, Arts & Events for Western North Carolina
Volume 1 No. 15
November 12, 1997

Love, Sex, Food and Politics
BETTY hits Be Here Now

By Melanie McGee

Carnival album cover with link to album pageSnowbiz album cover with link to album pageThe three basic tenets of BETTY are love, sex and food,’ explains Alyson Palmer, But if that daunting trinity seems too heavy for your palate, the generous vocalist and bassist also offers and alternate version of the doctrine, aimed at far lighter appetites:

‘BETTY rocks, BETTY talks, BETTY shakes it all around,’ she declares.

Apparently, BETTY does it all.

Palmer won’t narrow the group’s influences down to a specific group or performer, opting instead for a deeper perspective. ‘We write from emotional centers · whimsy as opposed to structure, what influences us as human beings,’ she says.

Palmer mentions vaudeville, but that’s the closest she’ll come to aligning BETTY’s style with a specific genre. ‘BETTY is our Frankenstein,’ Palmer admits. ‘She’s an intense entity [who] can be all-consuming.’

The pop trio of Palmer and sisters Amy and Elizabeth Ziff (average age 32) formed unofficially more than a decade ago. ‘We met as teenagers · and we’ve been laughing [together] ever since,’ says Palmer. Both truths are strikingly evident on BETTY’s latest CD.

Limboland (The Man From B.E.T.T.Y. Records, 1995), is blissfully perched in a private, fluffy stratosphere simultaneously evoking the sugary flutterings of early ’60s girl groups and the glitzy, transparent concoctions of ’80s bands like Bananarama. Though Palmer allows that the songs are written from a feminist perspective, the album seems decidedly more giggly-slumber-party than Riot Girl manifesto. But BETTY’s sound is never easily pinned down. A New York music critic once described it as ‘a luscious, bubbly brew seasoned with dashes of the B-52s and Parliament Funkadelic, then laced liberally with hip Andrew-Sisters-for-the-21st-Century harmonies.’

On Limboland, the trio’s soaring, trademark harmonies obligingly eclipse the lollipop lyrics on songs like Baby Ooo,’ while the robotic drum machine and compulsive danceability of ATypical Love’  (featured in the Miramax film The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love) recall the naïve nerviness of an early Madonna tune. Cable television has recently snagged a piece of BETTY’s action, too: Hick That Thing, with its funky, James Brownian rhythms, is the theme for the HBO show Real Sex.

‘BETTY is more than a band,’ Palmer insists. ‘On stage, we do spoken-word pieces, monologues. There are no hard or fast rules. Someone will bring in a lyric, everyone collaborates. The finishing off makes it – [that’s] the ‘Betty-izing’.’

This enlightened approach (cellist Amy is classically trained, while Elizabeth and Alyson claim rock and R&B roots, respectively) may results from the collective renaissance of BETTY’s childhood. ‘My father is a diplomat,’ reveals Palmer. ‘I grew up in Southeast Asia, and Amy and Elizabeth grew up in France.’ But a certain politically obsessed American city, where all three lived during high school, also shaped the members’ formative years.

‘The thing about [living] in D.C. is, it’s hard not to be politicized in a city so issue-oriented,’ Palmer points out. ‘We’re influenced by politics, literature, the zeitgeist of a nation.’

Palmer is proud of the group’s activism. ‘BETTY is our vocation and our advocation,” she declares. Indeed, the group champions an impressive litany of causes, such as breast-cancer research, the pro-choice platform and opposing violence against women.

‘We’ve always felt that people must be part of the solution, otherwise they will be part of the problem,’ she notes.

Happily, BETTY backs up this fashionable platitude with real action: 50 percent of the shows they play are benefits. Rocking an AIDS hospice recently, the band got as good as they gave: ‘[The audiences] are so unbelievably wild at AIDS hospices that Elizabeth broke an ankle landing against someone’s wheelchair,’ Palmer recalls. ‘She ended up being wheeled off herself, to a standing ovation.’

For their current tour, the group has added virtuoso guitar player Tony Salvatore and drummer Allison Miller for a harder-edged sound.

‘BETTY has always been hot voices in a cool medium,’ Palmer explains. ‘But we wanted to do something hotter. The [old shows] were more a capella, spoken word. [Now] it’s not as cerebral as it was. It’s exciting, sexy; it’s electrifying; a bigger, burning, pulsing, more passionate thing.’

With this new sound, the group ardently hopes to foster a more intimate audience/performer relationship.

‘We want audiences to go home from our show and make love in their own passionate way,’ Palmer asserts.