You stand outside his house. You bite your tongue—you lick your lips—you strike a flame—you burn it down. “A Torch,” the best song on the Illinois band Sarge’s second album, The Glass Intact, begins with a frat rape (“They got her drunk they never apologized”) and ends with a frat house on fire (“She didn’t leave until the last flame died”). The sound is the Fastbacks, tightened down, sped up, and defunned—this, not the latest twist on house, is speed garage. Singer-guitarist Elizabeth Elmore locks in with bassist Rachel Switsky and drummer Chad Romanski for a two-minute buzz that suggests they haven’t internalized a single stylistic innovation to hit hip white rock since Sebadoh and riot grrrl. It’s charming: no Corin Tucker or Kathleen Hanna, Elmore assails lines like, “their sweat still clung to her insides” in a voice that might be more at home singing torch songs in That Dog. As the song heads for the homestretch, Elmore’s guitar starts slashing for two, her and her heroine virtually indistinguishable. “EEEE-Yeeaah / EEEE-Yeeaah / EEEE-Yeeaah,” she yowls, part firestarter, part fabulist.
And those “EEEE-Yeeaah”s are great ones. For a nanosecond, Elmore—a 22-year-old midwestern daughter of politician parents with a B.A. in finance and letters of acceptance from both Georgetown and Northwestern law—is the unlikely realization of Hanna’s “Rebel Girl” of 1993: the über-grrrl who thinks she’s queen of the neighborhood. Well, I got news for ya. She is. Plus some bad news. “I’ve been with lots of boys, and they screwed me up so I learned to lie,” she tells us during the aggressive “Stall.” Confusion is her co-pilot. The “fast girl” “feminist” heroines in Sarge’s story songs get too drunk; they take you home and make you like it. And a week later you’re little more than fodder for journal entries that make Liz Phair’s look like Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s.
This postgrrrl band from authentically mundane Urbana-Champaign with a name that sounds like a fascist soda showed up in 1996 with Charcoal: clinically MidAmerindie guitar jags and Elmore shadowboxing every shitty moment in every lousy relationship she’s ever been in or privy to. “Eight months pregnant and sick with these lies” in one song, chopping off her asshole boyfriend’s limbs with her brand new records a couple songs later. Guts and strife. Yet gawky songwriting and crummy sound kept it from sticking.
Cleaner and brighter, The Glass Intact sharpens the jags and sweetens the punch. Rarely as incendiary as “A Torch,” it’s way too peppy for punk, especially when leavened by since-departed second guitarist Pat Cramer and/or Elmore’s adjunct piano playing. (Imagine a coffee shop in Olympia that only serves smoothies.) “Fuckin’ rocked, reminded me of Belly,” said a freshly minted convert at an impressive, if not transforming, Minneapolis show I took in a couple months ago.
Though that accolade might send Elmore and bassist Switsky—who toured with Heavens to Betsy and Bratmobile in her former band Corndolly—into fits of projectile vomiting, a very large segment of the populace could benefit from seeing some new Bellies. The Alanis set that’s too young for full-on Sleater-Kinney craves something more instructive than Natalie Imbruglia and down-to-earth than Tori Amos. These are the kids who might take to Elmore’s ambitious, literalist lyrics of love and rage, thrilling as they peel through their PSAT flash cards to get stuff like, “these nuanced conversations that cried for quiet consolations were affectations of affection that stemmed from suggestive rejections.”
What of it. So what if she’s stumped by your “suggestive rejections,” or if she loves your “lilting anger.” Words are fun. And in the act of falling in love with the flow of her own pen, Liz E. hits her mark and finds her voice almost as often as Liz P. nailed her Johnny and found hers. Falling for and then getting past the rockboy of “Beguiling” in just over a quatrain, kicking it a couple of songs later with a different sleaze in a hallway make-out scene that unfolds like a Billy Squier outtake, but crashing hardest during her own “Rebel Girl,” “Fast Girls”—about a gal at a Madison punk show with a mouth she liked—her journal fodder trades agenda for agency—for an aggressive confusion that could lead anywhere. It’s going to be a while—a while tightening her poetry, studying some Replacements records, maybe studying law at Georgetown—before she knows what she really wants. And we get to watch her figure it out.
Sarge play Brownies July 22.