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Two divergent singer-songwriters connect with incisive, spiritually honest new albums

By Bill Friskics-Warren

SEPTEMBER 13, 1999:  Pondering the fate of the American songwriter, a recent story in the San Francisco Bay Guardian asked: "How does a traditional art-form compete in a post-narrative world?" Not very well, judging from the latest issue of Spin magazine. Of the 90 long-players that the music monthly's September edition deemed the decade's best, only seven were by singer-songwriters. The editors of Spin of course were catering to their Skechers-shod subscribers, but their list of DJs, MCs, and rock bands was nevertheless revealing. The mad science (turntables, samplers, and microchips) that those in Spin's canon use to splice together their stories is far flashier than the muted strumming of most latter-day troubadours. Indeed, it makes such ardent secret-sharing seem quaint by comparison.

That said, it would be premature to sound a death-knell for the children of Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. For one thing, Lucinda Williams' writerly Car Wheels on a Gravel Road has moved a half-million units since its 1998 release. Formally similar records by such minstrels as Iris DeMent and Ani DiFranco have also sold fairly well. These albums are perhaps exceptions to postmodernism's cut-and-paste precepts. But their relative commercial and artistic success suggests that song-based narrative remains a viable medium for musicians trying to make sense of their lives and the world around them.

New albums by Sarah Dougher and Julie Miller--incisive, deeply personal meditations on human frailty and striving--confirm as much. Dougher is a thirtysomething punk-rocker from the Pacific Northwest who uses story to probe relationships and the values and institutions that shape them. Miller is a Texas-bred boomer who lives in Nashville with her husband and collaborator, Buddy Miller. She employs metaphor and, to a lesser extent, narrative, to plumb questions of spiritual and existential import.

At the heart of Miller's Broken Things, her second album for the HighTone label and her sixth overall, is the assumption that people are by nature incomplete and can't find peace or fulfillment apart from God. "I need something like a cure for my soul," Miller moans to the barren blues-rock of "I Need You." Her plea turns to desperation a few lines later when she adds, "I need something bad and I need it now/I got something wrong with me/You better fix it 'cause I don't know how." Her husband's tortured guitar solo on the break--equal parts Hubert Sumlin and Tom Verlaine--renders this gnawing palpable.

Much of Broken Things finds Miller consumed by this hunger: "Ride the Wind to Me," "Out in the Rain," "Orphan Train," and the title track all burn with deep-seated longing. "Out in the rain I keep on walking/Out in the rain like the brokenhearted do/I could be wrong, but that's where you'll find me/Out in the rain just looking for you," she cries at one point.

Miller's anguish is far removed from the generic, often feigned, angst of most modern-rockers. She has, among other things, brooked bouts of depression and lived with fibromyalgia, a disabling condition that continues to afflict her with chronic pain and fatigue. Suffering can cause people to turn inward and become bitter. But Miller's trials and hard-won faith have awakened in her an immense capacity for empathy, inducing her to open her heart to the misery of others.

"I Still Cry" mourns the death, and grieves for the family, of Miller's close friend and former drummer, Donald Lindley, to whom she dedicates Broken Things. "Maggie" captures the sorrow and resiliency of a band member's mother, a woman who was orphaned at age 6 when her parents were murdered. And the album's luminous title track goes out to the residents of Omagh, a village in Northern Ireland where a bomb attack killed 29 people and injured hundreds of others.

The prevalence of ravaged harmonies, minor chords, and aching blues- and folk-based arrangements on the record reflects the distress Miller feels for the people she's singing about. In fact, so attuned is Miller to the suffering in her midst that even nature mirrors its presence. "I know why the river runs/To a place somewhere far away/And I know why the sky is cryin'/When there aren't any words to say," she sings, her voice both gauzy and piercing, on "I Know Why the River Runs." Some have dismissed Miller's adenoidal vocals as girlish, but the bloodletting intensity with which she delivers these lines, and most others on Broken Things, is positively cathartic.

Miller gets help along the way from her husband and coproducer Buddy, as well as from cronies Steve Earle, Patty Griffin, Victoria Williams, and Emmylou Harris. But even with this stellar supporting cast, what stands out on Broken Things is Miller's singular passion. Music Row types from Lee Ann Womack to duet partners Suzy Bogguss and Garth Brooks have cut Miller's songs. None of these hitmakers, however, has matched the fire and insight with which she invests her material.

Sarah Dougher used to front the Lookers, a now-defunct trio from Portland that put out a fetching, DIY-pop album, In Clover, in 1997. She currently plays Farfisa and sings in the Crabs and Cadallaca, the latter a neo-girl group that she started with Sleater-Kinney's Corin Tucker and former Lookers drummer STS.

Rife with songs about friends with drinking, drug, and codependency problems, Dougher's solo debut, Day One (K Records), could easily pass for a loose concept album about addiction and recovery. At a deeper level, though, the record strikes at the heart of what feeds addiction and destroys relationships--keeping secrets, and the way that living with them precludes intimacy.

Witness "Secret Porno Collector," a Carpenters-style ballad in which stark piano chords echo the isolation of the song's smut-loving protagonist. "He won't die of heartbreak 'cause his heart will never break," Dougher muses. "His secret system of pleasure that he worked so hard to make/Will hold him so tightly that no one can get in/Girlfriend of the porno junkie now laughs at him." "Drunk #1," a halting drone haunted by cello and violin, finds Dougher confronting an alcoholic who has burned her bridges and surrounded herself with enablers. "All your friends, they're all new, they don't know you/They sympathize and act exactly like you want them to/You've felt some feelings you have chosen to dilute."

Where Miller's album concerns itself with healing brought about by divine intervention, Dougher's gospel is more therapeutic in nature; it's more a matter of "physician heal thyself." This isn't to suggest that Dougher takes human brokenness lightly. Rather, she seems to be saying that we need new lenses through which to view ourselves--ones that promote both dignity and accountability, thereby ensuring, as "40 Hours" puts it, that everyone has the freedom to "pray however, do whatever, love whoever, hope whatever" they want.

Dougher may be earnest and idealistic, but she never comes off as sappy or strident: Her buttery, plainspoken alto--a dreamy cross between that of riot-grrl God-mom Barbara Manning and The Fifth Dimension's Marilyn McCoo--is as honest as the committed relationships she treasures. "There you see a flock of geese, I heard they mate for life," she moons to the chamber-pop of "Everywhere West." On the jangly folk-rock of "Summer," Dougher renders her desire explicit: "I'm not the kind to usually complain, and in fact I like the rain/But I want a love to last through summer, I want a real humdinger."

In much the same vein, Dougher's resolute reading of "Take It to the Limit" transforms the coke-and-groupies-hedonism of the Eagles' original into an ode to bonds built on mutual respect. The tribute "Bella Abzug" takes this idea a step further, offering it as the foundation for a better society. The song takes place the day the feminist pioneer died and finds Dougher talking with a guy who lectures her about "the true meaning of modern irony," "changing [corporate America] from the inside," and "100 years of punk rock." By the time he informs her that punk is "all appropriated and [that] there's nothing new," Dougher, having suffered his condescending bluster long enough, respectfully submits, "I beg to differ, and that's Ms. Punk Rock to you."

It's a defining moment. Dougher not only reveals her true colors, she embodies and integrates the personal and political ideals she espouses throughout the album. In doing so, she proves, like Ani DiFranco, Barbara Manning, and Lois Maffeo before her, that a song-based art-form still has plenty to say in a post-narrative world.

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