Sharps & Flats

As a band, Sarge never knew how good they were. Fortunately, their post-break album "distant" makes a decent epitaph.


Charles Taylor
May 4, 2000 8:00PM (UTC)

January 1996 was a rotten time for me.
I'd suffered a loss, and I was so
miserable that I couldn't tolerate music
with lyrics. The band Sarge's first
record, suggested by a friend, was the
first album that I was able to listen to
in weeks. At a time when I had no use
for anything that didn't communicate
directly, "Charcoal" sounded as if it
were made by people who had no patience
for anything else.

A few weeks later when the poppy punk
band from Champaign, Ill., came to the
Boston area, my wife and I went to see
them and I was convinced of two things:
that Sarge were making some of the most
exciting rock 'n' roll around and that
they had absolutely no idea how good
they were.

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After I wrote about the record and the
performance, the band's bassist, Rachel
Switzky, sent an e-mail of thanks. When
Sarge returned to the same club a few
months later, my wife and I went to see
them again. We met up with them for a
drink afterward and they wound up
spending the night on our living room
floor. Over the next few years,
Romanski, Switzky and
singer/songwriter/guitarist Elizabeth
Elmore, along with other members who
came and went, would spend many nights
there. You can't spend time around a
young band without becoming aware not
just of how much they love playing music
but also of what wears them down: lousy
pay, the desire to become known without
being false to themselves, the limits
that choosing to remain independent
place on getting your record in stores
or on the radio. As Liz Phair said,
"It's nice to be liked/But it's better
by far to be paid." I wasn't surprised
when the band split late last year.

I offer this story not just in the
spirit of full disclosure, and not to
lay some claim to coolness because I
knew the band, but as a way of saying
that "distant," Sarge's posthumous
collection of demos, live tracks and
B-sides, affects me as a friend as well
as a fan. It's like a scrapbook of
things too recently past to have lost
the sting of missing them.

Much good art operates as if it were
laying a trap, designed to lure you into
snap judgments only to spring the trap
shut and make clear the flimsiness of
those judgments. The trap in Sarge --
and the key to the band -- was always
Elizabeth Elmore's candy-coated pop
voice. It was a voice that might have
been right at home with the trash-pop
she grew up listening to on the radio.
You could imagine it bringing a core of
a feeling to some of those manufactured
songs that lodge themselves in your
brain. (I always wanted to hear her take
on Billie's "Honey to the Bee"
or All Saints' "Never Ever.") Elmore is
in her early 20s, and combined with her
diminutive stature and her Betty Boop
lips, her voice invited you to underrate
her as one more cute little rock chick,
singing one more batch of cute little
pop songs, in one more cute little band.

"I'm not the angel that he wishes I
could be," Elmore sang in the most
self-aware line she's yet written (from
the song "Stall"), a line directed as
much at the listeners ready to attach
that label of cuteness to her and Sarge
as to the boy she was singing about.
Elmore's vocals draw you in by holding
out the romantic promise of pop music
only to lay out scenarios of bitterness
and regret, scenarios as emotionally
blunt as they are sometimes narratively
opaque. When she sings, "Every day I
drove from your motel to my high school"
(on "Homewrecker," from "The Glass
Intact" album and repeated on "distant")
there's no phony sullied-daisy hurt in
her voice, no pretense of innocence.

In some ways the force of that line or
the predicament of the young pregnant
girl in "Chicago" or the rape victim in
"A Torch" -- topics that she addressed
for three full-length records -- come
from the fantasies we want to entertain
about what kind of person must possess
as sweet a voice as Elmore's, the
comforting lies we tell ourselves about
young people, particularly young women.
We want to pretend that someone as young
as Elmore, someone who sounds like her,
wouldn't know the sexual betrayal and
usury that inhabit her songs. The calm
bluntness of her voice shredded that
fantasy.

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"Distant" opens with three new songs
that function as linked short stories.
The undercurrent of sadness in the
ebullient "Detroit Star-lite" takes over
in the spare, evocative detail of the
songs that follow. They are formally
polished and emotionally raw, returning
to the same breakup from different
angles. It's as if Mary Gaitskill had opted
to tell one of her tales in the form of
"Run Lola Run." When
Elmore sings of wandering through a
house deserted by her love in "the end
of july," the memories setting over her
naked body have the finality of
crematory ash.

But in the six live tracks that make up
the heart of "distant," Elmore does
perhaps the most direct singing she's
yet done. Using a lower register, a more
determinedly conversational tone, she
gives the lyrics a cutting power.
There's very little glee left in her
account of the smart cookie she should
have picked up at a "Madison punk-rock
show" in "Fast Girls," another song that
first turned up on "The Glass Intact."
What's left is the sound of someone
ruing a missed opportunity because what
lies ahead doesn't seem so promising.
When she sings, "I thought of her the
whole way home when I should have been
thinking of you," she sings as if she
doesn't give a damn that she was
unfaithful, if only in her thoughts.
Behind her, Romanski, second guitarist
Sue Roth and bassist Derek Niedringhaus
make a sound that's more than equal to
Elmore's no-regrets, no-excuses tone.

There is always a temptation to talk
about a band as if they were no more
than the image of their lead singer.
Elmore focuses Sarge, but the sound you
hear on these tracks (as on their two
albums "Charcoal" and "The Glass
Intact," both available from Parasol
Distribution
) is her engaged in a
conversation with the band instead of
declaiming. It's regrettable that
Switzky is present on "distant" on only
a couple of tracks; her febrile pliancy
was an essential part of that
conversation.

But throughout "distant," particularly
on the thrilling live tracks, you hear a
sound of a band speaking with one voice,
neither lyrics nor music taking
precedence but working together to a
common meaning. Chad Romanski's
downbeats and fills (particularly the
military-style drum rolls on "the end of
july" and the "Hound Dog"-like
machine-gun fire of "Dear Josie, Love
Robyn") are the sonic equivalent of the
stray anxieties that make their way
through Elmore's lyrics, anxieties that
are given voice and then tamped down. On
"Half as Far," which starts as a
sensitive little ballad before cracking
open halfway through, and "Homewrecker"
the band's force and speed transmute
into space and weight, stretching out to
let the turmoil of the music inhabit
acres and yet retaining enough control
to bring it to a head. It's the sound of
a band bronco-riding a hurricane.

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The saddest thing about "distant" is
that Sarge split just as they attained
that tightness and intensity. Where the
conversation Sarge began will lead its
members in their next projects remains
to be seen. Elmore is dividing her time
between law school in Chicago and solo
work. She may play some dates with
Romanski.

If I had to pick a characteristic Sarge
moment, it would be the one that ends
Elmore's solo rendition of "the first
morning." "I tried. Thanks," she shrugs
as she brings the song to an end with an
understatement that characterized the
band as a whole. Sarge did a hell of a
lot more than try. They transmitted the
bracing thrill of people finding their
own voice and saying exactly what they
wanted to say.


Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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