She's So Usual

Sarge
The Glass Intact
Mud

The current hand-wringing over the death, or at least dearth, of quality indie rock ignores the opportunities now open for those few remaining skilled practitioners of the craft. Take 22-year-old Elizabeth Elmore and her Urbana-Champaign outfit, Sarge. A half-decade ago, during the Golden Age of Women In Rock, they would have labored in the underground or been scooped up by one of the ever-trolling major labels and subsequently drowned in the mainstream. Now, as Courtney goes pop without blowing up, Liz and Polly turn honorable careerists, and Kathleen Hanna side-projects herself into insignificance, any woman who doesn't jangle or bleep has a fair shot at being taken to heart by the sizeable We-Want-Chicks-Who-Rock market. After all, no one can listen to Sleater-Kinney 24-7. Believe me, I tried it for a week.

Not that Elmore is particularly at home with those various crazy/sexy/cool poses since rendered cliché in the wake of the aforementioned innovators. Oh, she may regretfully boast, "I'm not the angel that he wishes I could be," before dumping a nice boy who has an exhaustive record collection, but the extent of her decadence is to fixate ambivalently on a surly, "sleazy," touring rockboy. She may complain that "I've been with lots of boys and they screwed me up so I learned to lie," but she only plays red-eyed virago on the post-rape retaliation narrative "A Torch," which is couched in the third person. And while she may lust after sexually subversive "Fast Girls," her bi-curiosity goes no further than a few coy glances and shared laughs about stupid boys--hardly a walk on the wild side two years after Jill Sobule kissed a galpal on commercial radio.

Sarge's Elmore (right): "I've been with lots of boys and...I learned to lie"
Sarge's Elmore (right): "I've been with lots of boys and...I learned to lie"

Elmore is relentlessly normal, a middle-class postcollegiate with a mild rebellious streak who asserts her independence by sleeping with jerk-offs and then vexing them till dawn with overcomplicated analyses of their incompatibilities. That's hardly a recipe for feminist empowerment. But no matter what irrational affairs Elmore longs to plunge into, she's fortunately cursed with a voice of reason--a bright, unwaveringly sane chirp that a less honest singer would cram into the perky confines of diminutive girlishness. It's as if Juliana Hatfield had finally received the much-needed brain transplant her sales figures could never afford her.

Elmore's charm lies in her reluctance to corset herself in the grandly recognizable female archetypes that generally garner acclaim from a largely male critical establishment. An ordinary, if uncommonly perceptive, young woman beset by ordinary (if no less frustrating) romantic perplexities, she never plays it slutty or nutty for attention.

Following bookish pioneers of all genders into the well-mapped territory between too-smart-for-your-own-good and not-as-smart-as-you-think-you-are, Elmore sincerely believes that she could talk herself into happiness if she had but the vocab, time, and audience. So she overstuffs each three-and-a-half-minute dispatch with brainteasers such as "all these nuanced conversations that cried for quiet consolations were affectations of affection that stemmed from suggestive rejections," which mutates into "all these ripped-off observations encasing sly retaliations, they're declarations of defection from your beguiling new deceptions" by the time the next chorus hits. If you take the time to unpack her verbiage, you'll discover a more taut description of the subtleties of male/female interaction than a subscription's worth of New Yorker short stories will provide.

None of which would matter if she didn't front a band that can map her a straight line from verse to chorus, tarrying only for the most sensible drum breaks and tuneful solos. The guitars are clean without being candied for public consumption. The choruses are so hooky they don't demand upped volume before they announce their presence. Likewise, the tempos are insistent without striving to set a new land speed record. In short, it's standard college-radio post-punk played convincingly--and if you think that's no great achievement, you haven't taken a trip to indieland anytime in the last three years.

The promise of indie rock, after all, has always been that if you provide smart people with a rudimentary musical framework, they'll toy with it in intriguing ways and slant-rhyme their way into your subconscious. This egalitarian faith in natural democracy often could be described by a theorem that (if I recall correctly) proposes: If you supply 100 monkeys with 100 4-tracks, one of them will eventually make a Slanted & Enchanted. Of course, in practice, they often just ended up getting really high and striking a G-chord until they became bored and fell asleep.

So damn the zeitgeist--here's a woman sketching the recognizable yet unique outlines of her personality on 11 smart, punchy pop songs. And if Elmore's brains presently outpace her wisdom, which hasn't quite progressed past, "I'm just so sick of boys in bands/With all their egos out of hand," that observation still places her ahead of 90 percent of the female population of Greater Bohemia. Not to mention Courtney Love.

Sarge play at the Foxfire Coffee Lounge 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, October 7; 338-2360.

 
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