Sharps & flats

Sarah Dougher, a collaborator with Sleater-Kinney's Corin Tucker in Cadallaca, releases her own minor suite of summer songs.


Stephanie Zacharek
September 23, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

There's something both youthfully endearing and ageless about Sarah Dougher's solo debut, "Day One." Dougher, a member of the Crabs who also collaborated with Sleater-Kinney's Corin Tucker last year on the delightful "Introducing Cadallaca," has a pale, shimmery, pleasing voice with an appealing translucency. On "Day One," she uses it to give shape and gentle texture to a selection of what you might call urban folk songs. They're stripped down and fragile sounding, making Dougher's subdued but expressive phrasing and her piquant guitar the focal point. Drums by a drummer who goes by the name "sts" and by Janet Weiss (of Sleater-Kinney and Quasi), keyboards, extra guitars and even an accordion sneak in here and there, but nothing overwhelms the delicate substance of these songs. Sometimes the instruments even have a pleasantly toylike quality, as if "Day One" were the result of some serious playing around.

The quiet intensity of "Day One" sometimes comes off as a little misguided. "Bella Abzug" contains one very funny line ("That's Ms. Punk Rock to you," the singer shoots back at an annoying boy who's lecturing her about punk history), but ends up being weighed down by overly earnest political sentiment about women needing to continue to fight the good fight. "Girl in New Orleans" sums up a brief affair in wrenching detail. Dougher's eager itemization gives it the feel of those obsessively confessional breakup songs that Lili Taylor's character in "Say Anything" sings about her ex, Joe. Sometimes guardedness is its own kind of intimacy.

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Mostly, though, Dougher's forthrightness works beautifully. On "Everywhere West," she conjures the American pioneer spirit ("There you see a miner's daughter crouching by a stream/There you see a logger's daughter cutting down her dream/There you see her in the kitchen drinking gasoline") as a metaphor for contemporary restlessness. Dougher's charming and almost unrecognizable cover of the Eagles' "Take It to the Limit" is a clever little surprise. (On my first listen, paying only fleeting attention, I had no idea what I was listening to until I caught the slightly altered lines, "You can spend all your life making money/You can spend all your love making time.") And on the lustrous "40 Hours," Dougher starts out singing about despair, against the plaintive underpinning of Nick Dougher's accordion. By the end, though, she's found a way to use her confusion as a catalyst, a kind of cosmic fuel for action. "I'll hope whatever I want, and I'll do whatever I want," she repeats like a chant, and her resolution grows phrase by phrase.

There's lots of dappled shade on "Day One" -- it's neither annoyingly sunny nor self-consciously murky. The album's closer, "Summer," opens with a winding, Byrds-like guitar line, making the song sound impossibly wistful even before the words kick in. "You may ask me why I'm singing such a sad tune/Because summer, it doesn't start until after June," Dougher explains, capturing the end-of-summer pensiveness that many of us older than 20 often feel about the season even before it arrives. All she wants, she goes on to say, is a love that will last through summer. It's both a modest request and a monumental one -- a fitting way to close a record of humble ambitions that's clearly been made with care, attention and lots of love.


Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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