Portland singer/songwriter Shelley Short’s new record, Pacific City, has an unlikely beginning. In the opening track, “Death,” Short’s driving along the Oregon Coast on a stormy night, wondering what might await her were she to accidentally steer off a cliff. It’s a gorgeous song (one of my favorites this year), reflecting the coast’s rough beauty like light through jagged sea glass.
“Death” sets the pace for the rest of Pacific City, which teeters at the edge of life, the earth, and certainty. Recorded with Peter Broderick at his studio on the Oregon Coast (where she was headed on that perilous drive) and released this month on Mississippi Records, it’s Short’s seventh full-length including her 2004 debut Oh’ Say Little Dogies, Why? It’s also her best yet—these cliffside meditations make for surprisingly rousing folk songs.
Here, Short sounds influenced by the equally plaintive and playful ballads of Connie Converse. Her crisp, clear melodies center on acoustic guitar accented by piano, synth, lap steel, violin, pump organ, and even the musical saw. Short’s voice dances over syllables, running cool and smooth through the album’s changing emotional landscapes.
“Muddy River” follows the first track’s theme of disappearing into the unknown, with a brooding guitar line that captures the feeling of Oregon’s endless drizzle. “Book Under a Tree” is the record’s unexpected electro-pop number, while the merry-go-round piano line of “Lists” recalls the early work of Regina Spektor.
On her ghostly rendition of the traditional folksong “Wagoner’s Lad,” Short sings like she’s reciting a spell over the sound of rolling waves: “Oh, hard is the fortune of all womankind/They’re always controlled, they’re always confined/Controlled by their parents until they are wives/Slaves to their husbands for the rest of their lives.”
Listening to Pacific City is magic, like holding a seashell to your ear and hearing the ocean. And though the subject matter is a little gloomy—the album does begin with a song called “Death”—it makes for comforting music, charged with the special spark of Shelley Short.