LET'S MAKE ONE thing clear: Shelley Short knows how to spell the word "canoe." But you might not assume as much from the title of the Portland native's new album, A Cave, A Canoo. The typo is deliberate, Short explains: "It's not a reference. I just liked the way it looked, visually. I liked the way it looked on a page, written—black words on white paper, and when I wrote that out I just thought it looked really cool. So it's just kind of aesthetic."
Sonically, the album's aesthetic matches its title; a familiar, functional craft (in this case, folk music as opposed to a canoe) is turned just slightly off-kilter to create something strange and enveloping. Short's songs are models of restraint, sketched by plain acoustic guitar and sparingly colored, but something about her voice and delivery—not to mention her lyrics, which avoid easy sentiment—indicate infinite, potentially treacherous depths beneath the placid surface.
Canoo's carefully cultivated mood can be attributed to the album's extended span of recording, which allowed Short and her collaborator, guitarist Alexis Gideon, to lay down tracks over the course of a year.
"It was just really nice not to have a time limit," she says. "Recording at home, I didn't have the feeling of having to worry about paying by the hour, or when to go in, so it could be in the middle of the night. It added a lot of freedom, which I think was really helpful. I had an end in sight but I wasn't trying to push it, so when it felt right, then I knew the songs were all finished."
"Since I met you, I'm afraid of dying," Short sings in "Familiar," as grunting cellos butt up against Gideon's pointillist guitar, grabbing isolated points of light from a dark firmament and smearing them into a messy galaxy. "Mockingbird" sounds like a haunted lullaby, and the late-night bleariness of "How Was the Water?" transforms a life-affirming melody into something a bit more ominous. But the album's "Interlude" is perhaps its weirdest jag, consisting in part of a found recording of a young boy singing "(There's a) Bluebird on Your Windowsill."
"My parents found this really cool 78 at a thrift shop," says Short of the track. "It's red and cardboard, and it has this plastic coating. They used to have booths you could go into and record. My dad did it when he was a little kid, 'cause his dad was in the war, so he could go in and be like, 'Hi, Dad! We miss you!' and then send it. I think that's what this is—from that kind of booth, although I'm not sure.
"There's a little boy singing that bluebird song," Short continues. "And on the flipside of the record is him playing an accordion. It's really cute. I don't know who it is. It doesn't have a label on it, but I just really—I love that little song. It's really uplifting the way he sings it."
The song, originally written by a Canadian nurse for a sick child, flows into a pastoral acoustic guitar passage and a field recording of rainfall, to create a moment of simple introspection that balances perfectly against the rest of Canoo's relative menace. The album's songs' simplicity—along with their rare, menacing beauty—thrusts Short into a naked spotlight, and her ability to transform languid folk music into stark reflection results in a challenging, seductive record that's not easily forgotten.