The artfulness of Sarah Dougher's "The Walls Ablaze" comes disguised in offhand gestures, half-buried in the casual swirl of low-budget guitars, throwaway symmetries and quietly seething emotion. "You don't know how I extract/You can feel my full impact," she insists over a beautiful piano-and-guitar arrangement that would be right at home on John Cale's post-Velvet Underground classic "Vintage Violence." Dougher's eloquent simplicity is more subtle here than when she's playing "screamin' organ" for rambunctious garage-goddess trio Cadallaca, but on "The Walls Ablaze" you can hear her unadorned extractions growing into an equally raw presence, a "physical geography" her passionately detached voice assembles as though she were taping pieces of a torn-up love letter back together.
The force of songs like "Mirror/Shield" and "The Scales" comes from the way they balance contradictions, blurring primitivism and delicacy, marrying the cryptic to the visceral: the blunt warning "Keep your mirror away from me, lady" or a gloriously crude guitar break erupting out of nowhere, like a bad-trip flashback. (When guitarist Jon Reuter steps forward to take the lead vocal on "What's Good Is Better Than Gone," a '60s time warp opens up, and it might as well be a breezy "Nuggets" obscurity he and Dougher found sandwiched between the Beau Brummels and the Nightcrawlers.) There's a terrific fierceness in the way she aims every word as if it were some kind of prophecy or curse, as well as a flat, thrilling matter-of-factness. "And you will cry a thousand times/Before the night is through," she announces in "She Stood Up," bearing down on words a million other singers might have sung before delivering her personal coup de grbce: "Events will never deliver their meaning to you." That's the closest thing to a message Dougher offers -- that every meaning has to be wrested bodily, bloodily, from an indifferent world; territory, claimed an inch, a glance or a heartbeat at a time.
On last year's "Day One," the sound was a not-rough-enough draft for what she does with "The Walls Ablaze," and the more self-consciously artistic the music got, the more prosaic and constrained it seemed. But maybe doing a gruesomely sensitive chamber-folk version of the Eagles' "Take It to the Limit" is something a person has to get out her system, same as falling in love with your English professor or having sex with the captain of the soccer team. Even the softest parts of "The Walls Ablaze" -- and the album's final three songs are as measured and graceful as a feather falling to earth -- have punk's pitiless sense of resolve and lucidity. Not punk understood as histrionics and posturing, but as a refusal of the same: Dougher takes that freedom from sentimentality and melodrama as her point of departure (or no return). Which only serves to make the allegorical loveliness of "The New Carrissa" and "The Ground Below" burn more brightly. When her voice shifts registers in "The Flag" and "The Match," climbing after high notes just out of range, it has the charge of an incendiary device. "The walls ablaze" are the first and second-to-last words on the album; "the flames rip through" are the closing ones, and you can see them lick every corner of the room.