Geography plays an awfully dubious role when it comes to music. While it’s comfortable to speak of a sound in terms of a “scene,” and the two of them being interrelated. But those are often the exceptions to the otherwise scattered and random mix of music, literally all over the map (though not, like, a literal map…that backfired, damn). Country music, for instance, seems best when it’s spawned from the South. And listening to Shelley Short, it would make sense that she come from the Carolinas or Texas, despite having no accent to speak of. But no, she’s from Portland. And where did she go to record her new album Captain Wild Horse (Rides the Heart of Tomorrow)? Chicago.
It does seem a bit odd that an album this steeped in Americana, from Woody to Emmylou, is written and recorded in two cities nowhere near the Grand Ole Opry. And yet, Short (not the Bizarro World Shelley Long) could easily fit in alongside alt-country chanteuses such as Carolyn Mark or Neko Case, who also comes from the Pacific Northwest. Yet Short’s balladry seems more carefree and upbeat than Case’s, at times. “Like Anything It’s Small” flutters about on a daydream, as Short displays her witty wordplay: “My vie en rose/my feeling grows.” And “Lupine Manner” sounds almost childlike with its toy piano melody and loopy waltz.
Even despite the brighter sounds that emerge on the album, Short still holds her own as a haunting Americana troubadour. On opener “Tomorrow Night,” the rumbling cello beneath Short’s voice only seems to enhance the reverbed-out atmosphere, lending the song a darker, gothic quality. And yet, there’s hope in Short’s comforting tones: “tomorrow night is filled with light/and if it comes then I’ll give you some.” Even more reverb comes into play on “All Eyes on the Skyline,” as Short sings of seafaring, or seafaring as a metaphor for a broken relationship, rather. But on “Pullin’ Pullin'” she makes a fairly straightforward countrypolitan mosey into a lovely, standout track by merely keeping it simple. Her borrowing of the melody from “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” on the string-laden “Roaring Roars,” however, is possibly the most genius moment on the entire record.
There may not be a big country scene in either Chicago or Portland, barring some rare exceptions, but then again, Shelley Short isn’t one hundred percent country. Rather, she takes from classic country and folk and adds her own quirks and charms to the mix, resulting in a very familiar sound, but not one that speaks to traditionalists. And there’s no harm in that, because Short isn’t exactly the most traditional songwriter.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.