Shelley Short

Captain Wildhorse (Rides the Heart of Tomorrow)

(Hush; 2006)

By Kate Steele | 22 October 2007

Shelley Short must get tired of being told her voice is sweet. In every review of Captain Wild Horse I’ve encountered, the adjective has come up in one incarnation or another-- sweet and high, sweet and solemn, sweet and country, sweet and, well, just sweet. I’m sympathetic to how annoying and uninventive this must seem, but the trouble is, when describing Short’s voice, sweet is an adjective that’s hard to avoid. Her speaking voice, too, sounds much like you might imagine after hearing her sing; it’s girlish and frank and, to use another adjective she may have come to resent, incredibly cute. Sweet and cute, charming and frank -- Short’s music must be sugar, spice and everything nice, right? Well, not exactly.

Captain Wildhorse (Rides the Heart of Tomorrow) is Short’s second release after 2003’s Oh, Say Little Dogies, Why?. Three years ago, she packed her bags in her hometown of Portland and headed east to Chicago. Leaving her band behind, she was fortunate enough to meet new band members Andy Rader (bass), Tiffany Kowalski (violin) and Jamie Carter (drums). For this album, Short also teamed up with The Decemberists' Rachel Blumberg on drums and Desert City Soundtrack's Corey Gray on trumpet.

So, if incurably sweet, what saves Shelley Short from ever sounding saccharine? Her songs’ dark edges, her unique delivery, and her talented band’s ability to follow wherever she leads (and, at moments, to take the reins themselves).

Captain Wild Horse opens with “Tomorrow Night.” Its languid, slightly sloppy fingerpicking and haunting vocals are reminiscent of Mazzy Star, and its lyrics are simple and mystifying. It’s hard to say who Short’s ideal audience might be, but she has a dramatic, spell-casting ability that could charm all ages. When, on an exaggerated, nasal glissando, she sings “Tomorrow night’s got sisters and brothers / tomorrow night’s got stars in the sky,” it’s easy to imagine her, eyes glistening, calming a group of screaming five year-olds into a deep sleep. “Tomorrow Night’s” a deceptive sort of lullaby, though. As a child may be lulled to sleep by the rhythmic language of a Grimm fairy tale only to be stirred by strange dreams in the night, Short’s songs gain force and complexity as their murky imagery comes to light. To the melody of “The Ants Go Marching,” on the hypnotic “Roaring Roars,” she sings “the fish are coming up to eat / the dusk is breaking at my feet / Hurrah.”

Short maintains an old-timey intensity on the more straight-ahead country numbers, “Wild, Wild Horses” and “Goodbye Old Morning,” and shows us on the gorgeous “Pullin’ Pullin” that she’s got country phrasing -- somewhere between Hank Williams and Patsy Cline -- down pat. The harmonies and instrumentation (banjo and violin) on “On the Waterfront,” a song inspired by Marlon Brando’s character Terry in the movie with the same title, are evocative of The Be Good Tanyas.

What sets Shelley Short apart from her country-crooning contemporaries is her ability to write songs that don’t announce their true colours right away. Sweet and pretty on the surface, a few listens reveal a depth more focused and cunning.