A good rule for life, is that nothing good ever comes from exchanging poetry. The psych-folk band Olden Yolk have proven to be the exception to that rule. In 2016 Shane Butler and Caity Shaffer began exchanging daily poems, this creative exchange has led to a bold musical experiment which has resulted in two albums in the last 15 months. Their self-titled debut album, released in 2018, was celebrated for its brainy brand of propulsive indie folk rock. Their sophomore effort, Living Theatre, avoids any hint of a slump while expanding the scope of the themes the band addresses.
I’m not sure if Living Theatre is a full-on avante-garde album, but it is undoubtedly weird (in a good way). The name of the album is a reference to the first avante-garde theatre company in the United States. Olden Yolk lives up to its’ legacy of heady and fearless experimentation. It’s the type of album where you find yourself wondering, was that a sitar? Yes, yes it was. On many of the tracks it can be hard to pin down which instrument is being used. Sounds float through the tracks like ghosts. This may sound like I’m saying the album is disjointed, but all of the instrumentation is deployed with such confidence that it wins you over. It is a full-on assault on your auditory cortex.
The opening track, “240D”, creates an interesting sensation; a warm wall of electronic sounds comes at you as Butler’s airy vocals float above a propulsive drum beat, and as you start to get your bearings mid-way through you realize that the song is about witnessing a murder and not being able to do anything about it. The chorus (“And panic awaits”), which Butler sings with a casual cheeriness become extra horrifying as it becomes clear that it is referencing the inescapable and lingering PTSD from witnessing such an event. Many songs on Living Theatre have this delayed gut-punch effect. Butler and Shaffer tackle socially conscious and sometimes depressing themes, but their vocals have a light and cozy feel that softens the blow. Butler ends “240D” on a grim thought, “Pleasant thoughts can’t wake the dead.”
The first third of the album shares a lot of its DNA with their debut album. But after the fourth track “Meadowlands” a two minute instrumental track, Olden Yolk leans into their more experimental side. The highlights of the back half are “Castor and Pollux” and “Every Ark”, which are both sung by Shaffer but exist on completely different sonic landscapes. “Pollux” is stripped down, mostly consisting of an understated jazzy keyboard and Shaffer’s seductive vocals, while “Ark” is rollicking and primal.
Even on the tracks that miss the mark there is still something interesting going on. “Violent Days” attempts to be a chilled-out spacey song, pushed along by hypnotic electric guitar strums, but it lacks direction and is mostly a total mess. As you’re about to change the track a saxophone starts doing a Coltrane-esque jazz solo and you end up having to finish the song, it doesn’t get any better but you want to see where the mess goes. This epitomizes Olden Yolk as much as anything. You just have to go along for the ride. The roads are crooked and it’s mostly unclear where you’re going but there is a lot to see along the way.