Like all great folk purists, Shelley Short has a knack for finding beauty, pain, and pleasure in the darker corners of the world. Whether coaxing a fluttering melody from a song about a lover leaving town, or wondering what death feels like, Short’s sweet disposition is cut with the bitterness of life’s burdens. As such, her new album Pacific City flirts with the sweet and the sour, the light and the shade, and the ominous shadows lurking in between over a beautifully haunting collection of folk-saturated tunes.
Pacific City’s demureness is intoxicating. While not as immediately musically ambitious as Short’s most recent LP, Then Came the After, its charms are dependent upon repeated listens, and in the secret appeals of headier songcraft.
The album opens with the jangly acoustic number “Death,” a song about respecting the imminence of the smallest calamities in life. During the course of the song, Short daydreams a wayward coastal drive that sends her plummeting from a cliffside highway to the frigid waters below, questioning the morbid details of the imagined tragedy, and hemmed by the repeated line, “Is it true what they say about dying?” Short’s bursts of poetic bombast encircle her like a school of sharks, as she sings, “If I die tonight on the old coast road/cause the turns and the rain sent me sailing/over the little wall made of bricks thick with salt/and i landed right there in the water/and the waves picked me up and carried me to a place only death will alow you/will there be people there or do they disappear?”
The eerie ambiance of “Death” is anchored by the noise collages of Dragging an Ox Through Water’s Brian Mumford. Throughout the rest of Pacific City, however, Short’s dreamy timbre is accented by the swirling production of musical partner Peter Broderick, with whom she collaborated in his Oregon coast studio, near the actual town that gave this record its name. The lithe foundation of her songwriting is not given much beefy, rhythmic instrumentation to decorate its melodic peaks and valleys, and instead is offered mostly a la carte.
Broderick’s sonic palette is lush, but minimal, and coats Short’s songs with elegant, thoughtful guises of sound, from musical saw, to violin, to lap steel, and to Rhodes organ on the standout track “Muddy River.”
“Muddy River” is more evidence of Pacific City’s less-is-more aesthetic, putting heavy emphasis on Short’s mesmerizing vocals, her sense of cadence, and how important those two facets combined are to songs so sparse. With little more than harmonies, some quick bursts of keys, and an acoustic guitar, Short has the ability to hypnotize.
“Fearless,” on the other hand, is just the kind of song that doesn’t need any kind of accoutrement; it’s just Short at her most darling, poetic, and magnetic, strumming a melancholy tune about someone living out of a grocery store. The similarly lovely cover of “Wagoner’s Lad” exposes Short’s steeped roots in the folk canon, where she places the roaring waves of the Pacific Ocean as backdrop to the song’s lovelorn woes.
Stripped away as it is, Pacific City finds bold moments in spite of its nakedness,
exposing Short’s raw talents for songwriting in a new, unencumbered way. Like the salty waves of the Pacific Ocean that roused her inspiration, her songs roll, crest, and break in naturally radiant repetition. If you listen long enough, you can hear the ocean’s hushed whispers calling on you, too.