Sarah Dougher, ‘The Bluff’ (11/25/01)

Sarah Dougher is a 34-year-old musician in Portland, Ore., best known for her singing and organ playing in the dress-up punk trio Cadallaca. The group posed in an El Dorado for its first record; for its second the band appeared as two saloon floozies and a customer. “Two Beers Later” is as serious as they get.

But then Ms. Dougher (pronounced DOO-gur) put out The Walls Ablaze, as impassioned an album as anyone released last year. You heard a woman standing in an apartment whose walls she has set alight by the fire of her own desire—by her own wish to make a place for herself in the world, her wish for a world that would make a place for her. Her third and latest album, The Bluff (Mr. Lady MRLR 21), is a long, wild leap into even stronger music.

Ms. Dougher’s songs expose their own construction. You can almost see the beams and masonry holding them up. On The Walls Ablaze this was part of a certain tentativeness in the sound. With The Bluff this tentativeness is part of the thrill, the realization that music which can feel more like weather than like art has been made up, put together, chosen, devised.

It’s a question of rhythm and singing. With “First Dream” and “Must Believe,” the opening numbers on The Bluff, the songs are hot out of the box, with bright guitar notes—lead by John Nikki, rhythm by Ms. Dougher—emerging from inside the songs, not decorating them but revving them up. On The Walls Ablaze, Ms. Dougher’s voice was tensed, armored; that was a source of its force. But it was a force used as a weapon, for a purpose, and as it focused the songs it also narrowed them. Here Ms. Dougher relaxes into her own, physical sound, and the music becomes less specific, less purposeful—less about her.

Ms. Dougher likes blunt titles with a definite article: “The Flag” and “The Match” on The Walls Ablaze; “The Bluff” and “The Choice” here. Names like this give a performer something to live up to: the performance has to catch the image, the idea, define it, complete it. “The Choice” can’t be simply a choice; it’s the thing itself.

On The Bluff it’s “The Homecoming” that tests Ms. Dougher, and it sounds like a test she has set for herself. This is a big, loud, expansive piece, never rushed, but building up momentum with every phrase, the melody flexing with more spring with every layer of noise that’s added to it. The rhythm is so pretty you can get halfway into the song before it hits you: in this song, everything is on the line. Something huge, something life-changing, is being abandoned; after this, nothing will be the same.

“I can’t wait anymore for you,” the woman in the song says, and that’s an ordinary notion; the hard, finished way the line is sung might turn your head, but the idea doesn’t. “I’ll take the first one to come through” does. And then the band—completed by Janet Weiss, the drummer from the Northwest punk band Sleater-Kinney—takes off. The musicians will get out of the song, but someone in the song has gone down with it.

The shift straight into Ms. Dougher’s version of the 1962 Irma Thomas tune “It’s Raining” is like being shaken awake from a dream so all-consuming that ordinary life takes a moment to come back into focus. The song is 100 percent New Orleans, which means that even as Ms. Dougher tells you how miserable she is she can’t help sounding happy. The rich, flowing organ pushes the tune, as if it has its own destination in mind, a street the singer would never think to take. It’s the most un-self-conscious white woman’s cover of a black woman’s hit imaginable, as natural as Richard Manuel of the Band singing Bobby Bland or Ray Charles.

You can listen to The Bluff along with Macy Gray’s recent The Id. The Id is a rich, glamorous, taunting record, but you can hear the sense of entitlement that’s most alienating about singers of diva status, a status Ms. Gray reached when the I’ll-kill-you songs on her 1999 album On How Life Is—songs that had a lot to do with winning Ms. Gray her fans—were publicly bypassed in favor of endless programming of the love-me-or-I’ll-die anthem, “I Try.” Diva means a singer who acts as if what happens to the hero in Nicholson Baker’s 1994 novel The Fermata will happen to her: that time will stop when she wishes it to stop and begin again when she grants it leave to resume.

Ms. Dougher sings as if she wants everything and expects nothing. “Took you two years to forget,” as she snaps so bitterly, so finally, in “The Homecoming.” “Took you 10 seconds to remember.” And it was still too late.

New York Times, November 25, 2001

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