Disreputable activity

Aug 20, 2003 at 12:00 am

Writing about music, it's been said, is like dancing about architecture, which is an elegant way to suggest what I do is pretty useless. Who am I, and why should you pay attention to my taste, when it's culled from experiences that are in all likelihood different from your own? Explaining or justifying this self-indulgent exercise can be no more than intellectual porn, masturbatory self-congratulation to distract us from larger "issues."

Reputation lead singer/guitarist Elizabeth Elmore would probably agree. While she loves making music, the nascent lawyer — in her third year of law school at Northwestern — has no illusions about the relative importance of her craft.

"It's hard. I love them both a lot, but I feel one of them is a far more noble thing to be doing," Elmore says from her Wicker Park (Chicago) apartment. Elmore is interested in child advocacy, though she has a hard time mitigating her more glamorous pursuits in rock ’n’ roll.

"It's nice if 30 people walk away from a show and had a really good night, that's a wonderful thing," she says. "But it doesn't rank next to taking a little kid out of a bad situation."

Moral pin-setting like that trivializes most of our vocations, and that same no-bullshit stance distinguishes Elmore's writing in the Reputation. Analogous to Elvis Costello (whose "Almost Blue" she covers), Elmore's lyrics evidence a stridency without self-righteousness, implicating herself along with the tumbling targets around her. That self-awareness combined with pristine-yet-snarling vocals — honed in the half-dozen years she led DIY basement-show punkers Sarge — gives their self-titled debut a bite.

Crisp and straightforward, eschewing the forced templates of post-rock and emo as well as the overdriven distortion that marked post-Nirvana underground, the Reputation recalls late-’80s college rockers like Throwing Muses or subsequent acts such as Bettie Serveert. Tight, propulsive rhythms drive the midtempo tunes while the clean, stinging guitar (with just a hint of jangle) reminds us of a time when "pop" simply meant melodic.

The album was forged in the months after Sarge broke up (against Elmore's wishes), and the social set she'd built after moving to Chicago after college crumbled. "It looks to me like it's not everything you thought it would be, so enjoy it doll, you're free," she sings on "Misery By Design," and "this is how it ends, regretting the wasted years we spend, it's just another thing to leave behind," on "The Uselessness of Friends."

Yet for all her cunning, cutting lyrical asides, the album's tone isn't bitter or reproachful so much as the candid perspective of someone just awakened into another person's life — not tied to their past, but casually associated, freed from self-pity or even resignation.

Perhaps this is due to her bifurcated approach to her twin passions. As a lawyer she's trained to dissect arguments and follow a thread of thought, while musically she maintains far less perspective, control or, ultimately, comprehension.

"I don't have any idea whether things are any good or not, so I'm kinda at the mercy of other people," Elmore confides. "I have no control over the songs I write. They are what they are and they come or they don't. If you said, ‘you should write this kind of song,’ I'd be, 'I don't know how.'"

Sometimes this lends itself to discovering what songs are about through the eyes of others months later, as she realized when she re-read Greil Marcus' review of The Reputation in Interview, in which he wrote that Elmore discovered what she wasn't anymore, and that was all she knew.

"The other night it hit me how true it was, even though I didn't want to believe it at the time. I wanted to e-mail him and say, ‘you were right all along,’" Elmore says.

It's that disassociative magic which informs the album. Rather than poring over what she means to say, Elmore's words come out passionate, direct and honest. There’s no hedging or self-consciousness. She admits her friends say she's as emotionally remote and often impenetrable, making one wonder if — perhaps for the sake of her muse — she sings with a part of herself that's only a boarder with the everyday Elmore, yet liberal in her commentary.

As such, her music performs a deeper role than she admits or even realizes, speaking for us as much as for herself, in a more forthright way than we could ever hope for. This is the wonder of great music, giving voice to our hearts and communicating how, while we each live such separate different lives, we share a similar emotional vocabulary for which music is often the best translation. Connecting in this way, we feel infinitely richer and far less alone, admirable things which may mean music (and drawing attention to it) may not be as useless as it sometimes seems. In other words, the Reputation kick ass.


The Reputation will perform Friday, Aug. 22, at Small’s (10339 Conant, Hamtramck) with the Jealous Sound and Rescue. For information, call 313-873-1117.

Chris Parker is a freelance music scribe. Contact him at [email protected]