Sarge was a short-lived indie rock band from Champaign, Illinois. They produced pop/punk-inflected feminist indie rock from their formation in 1996 until their dissolution in 1999. Their two full albums, two singles and one compilation were all released on Mud Records. I can't seem to find the story about what inspired the name "Sarge".
Elizabeth Elmore was the main creative force, playing guitar and piano while writing all the lyrics and music and being the lead vocalist. Other players included bassist Rachel Switzky and drummer Russ Horvath. Sarge was formed while Elmore was studying law at Northwestern University.
Charcoal, Sarge's debut album, appeared the same year the band formed—1996—and had a minor hit single titled "Dear Josie, Love Robyn", which received some notice in music magazines and caused Elmore to take a leave of absence from her studies at Northwestern so the band could tour in support of the album. A series of mini-tours around America, including a stop at SXSW in 1997, got Sarge some needed publicity, with their shows being generally well-received and glowingly reviewed by smitten music critics. The music was in the vein of the pop-punk of the time: along the lines of, perhaps, Blink-182 or MxPx, but with female vocals and less emphasis on lyrics regarding fun times. All of Sarge's released music predates the awful and ridiculous emo genre, so lumping it in with that morass would be a mistake. The lyrics and direction of the music regarded relationships, break-ups and love. Nothing that broke new ground—to be sure—but refreshing nevertheless in its delivery and the novelty of a pop-punk band, then a male-dominated genre, with a woman vocalist. Elmore's voice is very straightforward and blunt, but also unmistakably feminine, literate and a little snarky.
In 1998, Sarge's breakthrough album was released. Entitled The Glass Intact, it is, from beginning to end, one of the finest pop records I've ever heard. It starts strong, carries on strong, and ends strong. In perhaps what was Sarge's highest moment in the music press, The Glass Intact ended up on Spin Magazine's "Top 20 of 1998" list. It sold about twenty thousand copies on CD and LP, which may not seem like much when you compare it to the sales figures of platinum-selling acts, but is still pretty impressive for a small band from central Illinois without the benefit of radio play or TV appearances. I didn't discover Sarge until 2008, on the recommendation of the Pretty Music community on LiveJournal, so I can't say for sure whether or not the nascent internet music press was onto Sarge in the late 1990s, but it seems more likely than not that it was. The only single from The Glass Intact was "Stall", released on 7" vinyl. The B-side was a cover of Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time".
More on The Glass Intact: it's one of my favorite albums. Track 3, "Beguiling", is one of the most heartfelt, brilliantly-worded five-minute songs I've ever had the distinct joy of hearing. It's easily among the finest twenty or so songs I've ever heard, up there with "Goodbye" by The Sundays, "Asleep" by The Smiths, "Sensitive" by The Field Mice or "Our Love Is Heavenly" by Heavenly. In fact, I'd readily compare Sarge to Heavenly, although I wouldn't call Sarge twee, as such. Other than not being British or extant in the late 1980s or early 1990s, during the heyday of twee, they kind of stand alone and are even more obscure. Not including various yahoos on YouTube and Last.fm, I haven't really known anyone who has ever heard of them (update: vandewal is a fan!—I've since found out). Although that's a crying shame, the best music is the kind you can keep to yourself and turn to when nobody else understands.
An excerpt of the "Beguiling" lyrics:
So why'd you have to change?
Or have you always been this way?
I miss the way you were before
You figured out that I'm not yours
And at every show
I'm just another face in your front row
But now I know you're so alone
So why'd you have to change?
Do you ever miss me the same way?
I miss our long talks on the porch
Your shifting eyes and sweet retorts
And it's been so long
I can't remember what went wrong
I miss you but I'm giving up
Also not to be missed on The Glass Intact are the heart-wrenching "Homewrecker" and "Half As Far", the wry "I Took You Driving" and the wistful-yet-fast-paced lesbian ode "Fast Girls".
Anyway, the release of The Glass Intact prompted Elmore to take another leave of absence from Northwestern to facilitate another tour and another appearance at SXSW. A year later, 1999, the band broke up without warning and no one involved will say why, although Elmore has said it wasn't something she was in favor of doing. Post-breakup, Elmore assembled a collection of live, unreleased and unused songs and released them on Mud Records as a compilation album called Distant. It contains three demos of unreleased songs, six live songs, two Elmore-only acoustic songs and covers of both "Last Christmas" by Wham! and the aforementioned "Time After Time".
After Sarge's dissolution, Elmore graduated from law school and has, since 2004, practiced law in Chicago and Washington, DC. Sarge's end wasn't the end of her involvement in making music, however. She released an untitled split EP with Bob Nanna in 2001 and then formed a new band, The Reputation, which put out two albums—2002's The Reputation and 2004's To Force A Fate—before calling it quits in 2006. Elmore was again the main songwriter, guitarist and vocalist. I can't say much about The Reputation, despite owning both of their albums. Perhaps my love of Sarge, and the deservedly high place I've elevated them to in my mind, has prevented me from getting into The Reputation for fear that they won't live up to how much I love Sarge. That's pretty neurotic, but what can you do, right?
In 2013, Elmore began working at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands.
A big part of the draw for me is that Elmore is only a few months older than I am, and she was making this music during a wondrous/strange good/bad period of my life. It's always a weird feeling listening to outstanding music made during that time (the late 1990s) by someone my age, while I was off in my own little world.
The obligatory discography:
- Charcoal (CD/LP - Mud Records - 1996)
- "Dear Josie, Love Robyn" (7" - Mud Records - 1996)
- The Glass Intact (CD/LP - Mud Records - 1998)
- "Stall" (7" - Mud Records - 1998)
- Distant (CD - Mud Records - 2000)
SongMeanings: Sarge (incomplete)
LinkedIn: Elizabeth Elmore, Esq.
Midwest Indie: Interview with Elizabeth Elmore (2011)
Unfortunately, there's no official Facebook page, Twitter feed or website, and there's hardly any useful information on this band to be found. Our own vandewal, however, is a personal acquaintance of Elizabeth Elmore and once mentioned my fandom to her. Her reaction was reportedly flattery and a missive to tell me "hi" from her. :)