In a March 1999 interview with Mya Lowe and Julie Colero for Discorder, Sarah Dougher expressed her concern for making the “idea of ‘punk lesbian’ more complex than some might prefer.” This is a significant cause, one that stands against the smashing together of lesbian punk rockers into an insultingly simplistic collective by critics who would place groups like Tribe 8 and The Need in a one-dimensional punk rock category based on their sexuality. It’s like folks who still claim there is a girl band category or sound frighteningly hegemonic and awfully creepy.
Dougher’s activism flows smoothly through such interviews and her music. With a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature, a published book on Chinese immigration to America, and her work as a teacher and journalist, Sarah Dougher is in a solid location to examine the various spaces in which people place themselves and are placed. Her music interrogates issues of identity, from struggles of class and sexuality to images of consumption and individuality, in an accessible, unique, empowered, and intimate style. Two of Dougher’s previous bands were Veronica, an Austin, Texas band that she played with in 1992, and the Lookers, once part of the queer rock scene in Portland, Oregon. Now Dougher also can be heard on a Farfisa organ as part of the Crabs (Portland) and with the Lookers’ drummer STS and Sleater-Kinney’s guitarist Corin Tucker in Olympia’s Cadallaca.
Dougher’s debut album, Day One, was released in August of 1999 on Olympia’s K Records. The Walls Ablaze comes out of Mr. Lady Records and is Sarah Dougher’s second record. Dougher has teamed up with Mr. Lady Records before, appearing on The New Women’s Music Sampler, released in October of 1999. The Walls Ablaze displays the eclecticism of punk rock, and Dougher’s style moves smartly around any specific definition throughout. During her tour to promote The Walls Ablaze, she stopped to play a show at Modified in Phoenix, where I watched her take the stage quietly and unassumingly and play with an empowering energy to an expectant and soon very pleased audience. Her band is super tight and sharp.
The Walls Ablaze features guitars that seem to perform duets in conjunction with and as smartly as the vocals found there. “No Handed” is filled with good harmonies that wind through a sweet, strong melody with yearning drum work that reflects the vocals. “The Scales” is a powerful, slow moving track filled with pounding, coupled guitars and good solo riffs. “What She’d Trade” swells and cascades with wonderful keyboard work.“The Ground Below” possesses lovely lyrical constructions of what’s in the space between that separation produces: “Every sky, your eye and every star / You are every word I know and the ground below.” The powerful style found in “Mirror/Shield” is driving and filled with smart changes and builds with solid and at times hard-edged guitar riffs. It is filled with the pain of being self aware, “She endures the pain of being fully formed,” and aware of being the Other: “Keep your mirror away from me, lady / ‘Cause you’ll never watch my back / And I don’t want to watch your mirror crack.” “She Stood Up” offers a narrated wisdom that seems to have been produced by a cutting experience: “She’ll love you as a girlish boy or as a mannish girl / She’ll make you remember who you are.” “What’s Good Is Better Than Gone” sports poignant harmonies surrounded by light, quick drum rolls and blues riffs that hang in the background before infiltrating to the front of the song. This song is about being left alone, and it repeatedly rephrases questions with a sad, clever humor: “What good’s a six pack if I have to drink it alone?”
Throughout The Walls Ablaze, words seem to take malleable shapes within Sarah Dougher’s lyrics, sometimes piercing and other times just knocking lightly at the door. Either way and through all possible degrees in-between, the smart lyrics and tight sounds on Dougher’s latest seem to bring awareness to the significations of parts, of connections and connecting.