The Reputation

With Starberry. Thursday, February 6, at the Beachland Ballroom.

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Sarge didn't have a radio single, a groundbreaking style, or a fashion-forward way of appropriating an established sound. It was a female-fronted trio, but singer and guitarist Elizabeth Elmore and bassist Rachel Switzky weren't riot girlies, Lilith fare, or scantily clad pop princesses, which would seem to exclude them from coverage in the mainstream media. Yet in 1998, Rolling Stone picked the minor indie outfit as its "hot band," Spin named Sarge one of its 98 artists for '98, and Robert Christgau and Greil Marcus, rock's Siskel and Ebert, gave the group two enthusiastic thumbs up, in Playboy and Artforum, respectively.

Nevertheless, 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. Two years later, she formed a new group, the Reputation, whose self-titled debut picks up right 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."

Lyrically, 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 effect social change, there's so many better avenues for me to do it than through writing a song."

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