More accolades soon followed. Spin named Sarge one of its 98 artists for '98, a list that, three retro-swing acts aside, remains a relevant roll call. Robert Christgau and Greil Marcus, rock's Siskel and Ebert, gave the group two enthusiastic thumbs up, in Playboy and Art Forum, respectively.
Yet even as it dominated the music sections of New York-based publications, Sarge's second disc, The Glass Intact, suffered from such poor distribution that it wasn't available in any Big Apple record store.
"Other than helping us get our foot in the door at clubs we were playing for the first time, it didn't make that much difference," Elmore says of the critical acclaim. However, the time in the spotlight did have a direct impact on Sarge's members. "We didn't freak out in an extroverted way," Elmore recalls. "We quietly wigged out."
Elmore was more disturbed than her bandmates about the exposure, given her personal involvement in the fiercely independent punk scene. "It made me uncomfortable," she says. "My first thought was, 'People are going to give me shit if we're in Rolling Stone.'"
The DIY crowd need not have worried. Sarge shrugged off major-label offers, and Elmore continued to book the group's modest tours herself. In 2000, after releasing another well-received full-length, Sarge broke up, and Elmore entered Northwestern's law school. The popular -- and incorrect -- presumption was that Elmore, eager to pursue professional dreams, pulled the plug on the band.
"I had nothing to do with the decision, so I was actually far more devastated by the breakup than anyone else," Elmore clarifies. Her initial plan was to complete her first year at Northwestern, then take an extended leave of absence for touring. But when Sarge dissolved after her first semester, she stayed at school for two years before the formation of her new group, the Reputation. Now she's following her earlier blueprint, stepping away from her studies and taking to the road.
The Reputation's debut disc picks up where Sarge left off. "Either Coast" and "The Stars of Amateur Hour," the propulsive opening tracks, showcase the strengths of Elmore's former band: clear and confident vocals, complex layered melodies and bittersweet, introspective lyrics. The rest of the album, though, strays far from this neighborhood, ending in an entirely different ZIP code with a brilliant torch-song treatment of Elvis Costello's "Almost Blue."
"I desperately did not want to have songs that sounded like Sarge at the beginning of the record," Elmore says. "I don't want it to look like it's years later, and I'm still doing the exact same thing. But we worked on sequencing and, much to my chagrin, that was the only sequence that worked."
On record, Chad Romanski contributes the same brand of skittering intros and transition-telegraphing rolls that he played in Sarge, but he isn't the Reputation's permanent percussionist -- he agreed to play on "Almost Blue," and Elmore roped him into concluding the studio work. Kent Stewart handled drumming duties until eight days before the group's tour began, when he abruptly quit. Fortunately, Elmore hooked up with Matt Espy, formerly of Atombombpocketknife, after a few days of frantic calls.
The diverse backgrounds of the Reputation's members (bassist Joel Root plays in a Chicago avant-jazz ensemble, guitarist Sean Hulet hails from the Shiner-like group Moreno) allow Elmore to pursue different paths, and the connections she had made handling Sarge's tours opened even more doors. Wilco's Jay Bennett plays the stunning piano intro to "Almost Blue," and Nate Wilcott, a touring member of the Glenn Miller Orchestra, lends trumpet melodies to two selections. The group hasn't yet hired a full-time horn player or keyboardist -- finding a drummer proved hard enough -- so such songs assume more of a rock attitude in concert. But Elmore, who played solo before assembling her current backing group, is used to performing short-handed.
"All of the songs I played, I heard with a band in my head," she says. "I was begging people in my mind, 'Please give me one song to convince you that I'm not going to be lame just because I'm solo.' I totally overcompensated, being really fucking loud. I played with an electric guitar, never sit-down acoustic style."
Female musicians are often shoehorned into the category of singer/songwriter-with-an-acoustic-guitar, but Elmore proudly defied this stereotype. Still, her sharp edges haven't discouraged journalists and tour promoters from placing her projects in inappropriate company.
"You only get compared to bands that have women singers or are primarily women," Elmore says. "With Sarge, it was always riot grrrl this, riot grrrl that. It was frustrating, condescending and marginalizing, like my gender is more important than anything else. We get asked to play women-in-rock festivals, and I tell them that we're not music for women, that three-quarters of the band is male and that I don't want to play with people just because they're women."
Similarly misrepresented are Elmore's lyrics, which often feature a female narrator railing against a male antagonist. "People tend to presume that all my songs are about romantic relationships," she says. "That really bothers me. Anytime a woman says 'he,' people leap to conclusions."
Also, Elmore's songs aren't always autobiographical, as is commonly assumed. In one work of fiction, "She Turned Your Head," her character lashes out at a cheating boyfriend, ranting I caught the tail end of her ass slipping up your stairs/... I knew you had that bitch in your bed. But Elmore's tone remains even-handed, even sweet, and the music, buoyed by one of Walcott's trumpet lines, borders on cheerful. The Reputation's subtle treatment turns what could've been an easy "You Oughta Know" knock-off into a true love song for the illiterate, in the tradition of the Smiths' acrid "Unhappy Birthday."
Elmore prefers to concentrate on relationships, despite the fact that her feminism and law studies give her the right background for penning protest anthems.
And she's exceptionally good at it. Even after filling three albums with relationship material, her capacity for conveying emotional turmoil is far from exhausted -- just listen to lines such as If everything's my fault/You're not to blame for all your simpering diatribes/On how I've caused you so much pain. Besides, she doubts that raging against the machine to a receptive indie-pop audience would accomplish much. "Writing a song about something is a pretty ineffectual way to change the world, especially at this level," Elmore says. "I don't really like sloganeering. When I want to affect social change, there's so many better avenues for me to do it than through writing a song."