A quick background check on Sarah Dougher finds that she teaches Greek and Roman Literature, and holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature. She wrote a history text on the racism that plagued the railroad expansion of the frontier Pacific Northwest. She’s a cofounder of the female- and activist-powered Ladyfest festival, which sort of acts like the antidote to Lilith Fair’s musical poppy sleep. Musically, she’s played in the Lookers, the Crabs, and Cadallaca (with Sleater-Kinney’s Corin Tucker), establishing a ton of indie cred along the way. However, even if you don’t know any of that, one listen to her music tells you that she’s intensely passionate in matters both personal and political.
The Bluff marks Dougher’s third solo record (following the critically acclaimed Day One and Walls Ablaze). Consistent through these three releases is a fierce riot-grrrl sentiment powered by a formidable intellect. Thankfully, though, Dougher escapes the siren call of being overly academic, instead favoring the satisfaction of visceral emotion and verbal clarity. Still, even the title—The Bluff—teems with potential meanings and shades, and the album follows suit by avoiding one-dimensional screeds. For every point-blank accusation like “you ask me in and treat me like I’m uninvited” (“Keep Me”), there’s a moment of confession like “I’m not much for distances / but I know the difference / between my heart and my brain / my heart wins” (“My Kingdom”), or even “What you’re doing to me is the same thing I do to you” (“Little Thing”). In Dougher’s landscapes, people deceive not only each other, but lead themselves down the wrong paths as well.
The Bluff teems with the moments that such conflicts breed. Amidst the swaying, chiming beauty of “The Homecoming”, Dougher notes that it “took you ten years to forget / took you ten seconds to remember”. The loneliness of “It’s Raining” finds her succinctly wailing, “guess I’ll just go crazy tonight”. In what may be the album’s defining moment, she winds her way to a quiet patch of “Keep Me” to claim that “nothing beautiful stays”.
Sonically, The Bluff is unsurprisingly reminiscent of some Sleater-Kinney, but the diverse textures are more akin to some of Barbara Manning’s earlier work, or to Liz Phair’s less indulgent output. “First Dream” enjoys a midtempo lope with glittering guitar embellishments, “Keep Me” boasts vintage R.E.M. jangle, a ‘60s bounce pervades “Wide Eyed”, and “It’s Raining” wrings every last drop out of a hybrid blues/doo-wop vibe. Much of the credit for the album’s versatility can be traced to guitarist/drummer/keyboardist Jon Nikki, who has a knack for giving each song its own identity without losing its indie roots. For a little added oomph, Sleater-Kinney’s Janet Weiss even shows up to drum on several tracks.
Ultimately, The Bluff succeeds on two fronts. Firstly, it’s a diverse record that’s firmly rooted in what’s commonly perceived as the female indie movement. Secondly, it covers considerable verbal terrain with admirable fairness and objectivity. These songs might spring from cracks in wounded hearts, but Dougher knows better than to just let the torrents flow. Many of these songs are controlled agonies, which is probably for the best. We carry enough of these sentiments around in their unfiltered form, letting them build into lasting resentments within us. Artists like Dougher perform a valuable service by giving us another way to look at these moments, while at the same time giving us a minor touch of catharsis.