Given her impeccable Pacific Northwest riot-grrl credentials and her academic standing as a lecturer and scholar on lesbian/queer issues, Sarah Dougher might be expected to brandish an aggressive political agenda, manifested in equally aggressive music. Instead, the former member of the Lookers, Crabs and Cadallaca makes solo albums that are quiet revelations of love, loss and longing. Like her friends in Sleater-Kinney, Dougher makes her most compelling political statements by looking at the politics of personal relationships.
Dougher, who holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature, is a talented instrumentalist (guitar, piano, violin) but a more compelling lyricist. Working from a simple indie-folk palate much of the time, she finds striking lyrical allusions that inform her careful character studies. Day One features the bitter “Girl in New Orleans,” a simply strummed ballad of a lover who fails to relay her other commitments. There are explorations of what it means to be a feminist (“Bella Abzug”) and lighthearted and hopeful admission of a new crush (“Summer”). Sung in a cool alto that calls to mind Karla Schickele of Ida, Dougher tempers the music’s simple tones with an acknowledgement of the complexities of love and relationships. Her tastes may surprise you — there’s an Eagles cover, of all things — but Day One is a very promising solo debut.
Much of The Walls Ablaze circles around the role of women who, by choice or circumstance, have found themselves alone or desperate or forced to make brutal choices. “Mirror/Shield” ponders the fate of women who perform for money — perhaps on stage, perhaps in the bedroom. “What She’d Trade,” a painful breakup ballad, closes with the irresistibly quotable line, “The selfish life of the activist / Can only be understood by the selfishness of the artist.” The album highlight is “The New Carissa,” which uses an allusion to the half-sunken freighter that languished off the Oregon coast to depict a relationship beyond repair. Janet Weiss of Quasi/Sleater-Kinney plays on much of the album, as do other local luminaries.
In January 2001, Dougher played a month-long residency at the Knitting Factory in New York. This resulted in a slew of complimentary press and increased eightened attention to her work.
The Bluff is more instrumentally sophisticated than its predecessors, with ’60s-derived rippling electric guitar solos by Jon Nikki which recall the urgent punch of early Kinks singles. Accordion, organ and a variety of keyboards also fill out the sound. Drummer Weiss thumps away and gives the album a nervous energy that doesn’t abate, especially when her Sleater-Kinney colleague, Corin Tucker, wails anxiously behind Dougher’s lead vocal on “Must Believe.” The luminous and mysterious title track, “My Kingdom” and a haunting cover of Allen Toussaint’s “It’s Raining” reduce the rock volume to a low simmer, showcasing Dougher’s lyrical gifts. She confesses her sentimentality with, “I’m not much for distances, but I know what the difference is / between my heart and my brain, and my heart wins / all the same.” In a charming demonstration of indie-rock family values, The Bluff is dedicated to Marshall Tucker Bangs, the then-infant son of Corin Tucker and Lance Bangs. Unfortunately, the liner notes misspell his name. Oh well.
Dougher — who had successfully been treated for cancer — released her fourth album, The Harper’s Arrow, on her own label. Recorded with members of Viva Voce, the album is described as being influenced by The Odyssey and electronic dance music. In addition, Dougher has served as the news editor for Portland’s gay newspaper, lectured at Evergreen State and Portland State University and scored a performance of Euripides’ Orestes.