One of the greatest things about being a music fan is not only discovering a new artist, but turning friends on to that artist. Among my hardcore music friends, music is currency. And the more obscure – and cool – your new “find” is, the greater the value.
I first heard of Bertolf Lintink through a friend in early-2011. Being half-Dutch myself (my father was 100% Dutch), I’ve always been interested in hearing new Pop artists from The Netherlands.
A quick sidenote: I can still vividly recall standing in a Ben & Jerry’s in Amsterdam in 2008, when a gorgeous version of the Bacharach/David classic, Don’t Go Breaking My Heart, came on the radio by a female artist I had never heard. As I stood there swooning, melting faster than the ice cream cone I was holding, I asked the owner of the store if he knew who was singing the song. He told me it was Dutch artist, Trijntje Oosterhuis. I asked him to write down the name for me, as I knew there was no way I was going to get it phonetically. I’ve since found over a half-dozen of her albums and they are all beautiful (her two Bacharach albums are must-hear for all Burt fans)!
With Bertolf (he goes mainly by his first name), I was intrigued to hear a Dutch musician who embodied so many of the influences I had myself. He sounded to my ears a lot like Pete Ham, of Badfinger, with echoes of Paul McCartney, Todd Rundgren and Eric Carmen thrown in for good measure. But the unique twist, was that he also had the guitar chops of the finest acoustic players I had ever heard: think Michael Hedges’ hands with McCartney’s head and you’ll start to get the idea.
The first song I heard, “For Life,” might still be my favorite pop song of the 21st century. It’s a deceptively simple-sounding song, that builds slowly with a looping Macca-esque bass line and 70’s throwback synths, over a lazy, pounding rhythm, to an utterly-climactic chorus that still lifts me out of my seat, every time I hear it. To say the least, I was hooked. I sent the YouTube link of the video for that song to everyone I knew, and turned quite a few on to this great new artist.
But I had to know more. And isn’t the internet a wonderful thing for that!
I little digging revealed that Bertolf, now 35, started out in a band called The Junes, quickly moving to a supporting role with platinum-selling Dutch country-rock artist Ilse DeLange. After several years with DeLange, he went solo in 2009 with the release of his first album, For Life. A single from that album, “Another Day,” reached #10 on the Dutch Top 40. His follow-up album Snakes & Ladders (2010), yielded two top ten singles – “Two In A Million” (#2) and “Cut Me Loose” (#3) – and cruised to #11 on the album charts; a bona fide hitmaker!
I was able to buy both of his albums on iTunes and I was hooked. For nearly two months that summer, I listened to nothing but Bertolf. With nary a skip track on either release, I’m hard-pressed to name another pop artist whose first two albums are this consistently good; maybe Eric Carmen.
Another sidenote: I also learned that we shared a similar passion for the Beatles. In 2009, to celebrate the release of the Beatles’ remasters, Bertolf and friends staged a rooftop concert in Amsterdam, performing a concert of Beatles classics to an unsuspecting lunchtime crowd, much like the Fabs had done 40 years prior. More recently, one of his side projects is Her Majesty, a tribute band that will perform Deja Vu, by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young in it’s entirety on a full-length concert tour this coming spring, starting in January 2016.
His third album, eponymously title Bertolf, appeared in 2012, with a bit of a shift in style. Gone, for the most part were the driving rhythms that propelled so many of the tunes on his first two albums, with drums sacrificed entirely on nearly half of the songs. The material, while still strong, was more varied in tone and temperament and I found myself, more often than not, going back to the first two albums for my Bertolf fix. That said, the song “Mary,” where the singer addresses the photo of his girlfriend’s dead mother, asking for her hand in marriage, is an incredibly sensitive lyric and a real beauty.
Bertolf’s newest album, First & Then was released in late-September of this year and has been on continuous repeat on my iPod ever since. It is the perfect marriage of the power and scope of his first two albums, with the more introspective elements of his third. And the songs are his strongest, and most mature writing yet. Stylistically, he has found a way to combine his virtuoso finger-picking talents with his deeper pop sensibilities. The result is one of the richest pop albums of the past ten years. And while I could extol the virtues of every song here – all winners – I’ll just highlight four.
“Jericho” was the first single from the new album, drawing inspiration from the biblical story of Joshua storming the walls of Jericho for ultimate victory. But when he sings:
I’ll lay siege to you, I will starve the guard, seven times I’ll march around your heart, and I’ll give a shout, when the horns will blow, till your walls come down
it sounds like the battle of Jericho is a metaphor for capturing the heart of his beloved. And when, at 1:30, Bertolf breaks the mood with a bridge full of na-na-na’s, it is a truly sublime pop moment like something you might expect from McCartney or Brian Wilson. He is innately tuneful in the way that the greatest songsmiths are.
In “Billy’s Boots,” a broken and nearly-defeated protagonist looks in the mirror and assesses his failures while wishing for a little luck to change his fortunes. Here Bertolf refers to the title character from the popular 60’s British comic strip, Billy’s Boots. In the strip, Billy inherited a pair of magic boots from his grandfather that, when worn, changed his fortunes from bad to good; an apt metaphor for a broken down man.
Oh, my ever-swinging moods, I wish I had Billy’s Boots, that could show me where to be.
Bertolf also addresses aging in the beautiful song, “Wrinkles.” Over a delicate finger-picked guitar pattern that compares favorably to Paul Simon’s on Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme, he addresses his own image (in the mirror?), and looks inward with his most poetic lyrics on the album:
And the moon it rose high, as I was sleeping, and the summers quietly went by, there’s a train that I rode, as I was running, and these wrinkles, grew around my eyes… overnight.
The production on this track is stunning, from a bed of haunting strings under the constant acoustic guitar pattern and plaintive vocal, to the spare train-like drumming under an evocative Chris Botti-like trumpet solo over the fade. Perfection!
My first favorite track on the album is still, after over 20 plays (thank you iTunes play counter!), “Fool All The People;” the only overtly-political song on the album; although several others have somewhat-veiled social meanings. Set in 6/8 time, it musically evokes – to my ears – the Gene Pitney classic, “Town Without Pity”, while still sounding totally modern. The lyrics reveal the singer’s feelings of being lost in the system:
We’re just numbers and figures in the bigger picture, pawns in the game, and we were deceived, led to believe, we could choose these things in democracy, you mess with our minds, but you must know, you can’t fool all the people all the time
while the music soars! Through several modulations, the melody climbs, finally finishing in Roy Orbison fashion with the highest note of the song. Dramatic, emotional and very memorable!
In a year that has seen several of my favorite legacy artists (Brian Wilson, James Taylor, Keith Richards & Jeff Lynne, to name a few) release long-awaited new albums, Bertolf’s First & Then gets my vote for Album of the Year.
A true Dutch treat!
Last sidenote: YouTube is the ultimate source for music and a great way to experience Bertolf’s music. A quick search will yield dozens of live and studio clips of the artist at work; all highly recommended!