Trouble in Mind
23 Feb 2018
Some albums succeed in evoking a real sense of time and place. In the case of New York-based folk-rock band Olden Yolk, the band have distorted that idea to create a pastoral folk album that celebrates life in the city. From the dirt-encrusted monuments to the graffiti-adorned kiosks and the litter-strewn subway platforms, the album celebrates the spaces we use every day and how they enrich our sense of collective identity.
Olden Yolk has been a collaborative outlet for songwriters, vocalists and multi-instrumentalists Shane Butler and Caity Shaffer, since the release of the Beige Flowers/Away split single with fellow experimental folk artist, Weyes Blood. With their line-up expanded by a number of other like-minded musicians, their debut album showcases their ability to often lace heartbreaking dystopian folk songs with tight, colorfully interwoven vocal harmonies and decant them over motorik rhythms and spry hooks. The result is a modern folk-rock album that proudly views its influences through the prism of modern day city life.
After a cinematic, ambient opening "Verdant" introduces the band's core elements of slide guitar, bluesy folk piano and the smoothly refined vocal of Butler interwoven with the more lilting voice of Shaffer. It's an earthy and winding opener with the male and female vocals beautifully intertwining. Halfway through the ambiance is disrupted by stinging electric guitar notes alerting the listener to the fact that this is as much indie rock as it is folk. The propulsive "Cut to the Quick" proves that point still further with its chiming acoustic guitar riff and motorik rhythm section sounding as if John Martyn, the Velvet Underground, and Neu! took a vacation together in Laurel Canyon.
The more wistful folk of "Gamblers on a Dime" features a beautifully ascending riff framed by gorgeously bright, finger-picked guitar. It's the kind of traditional folk song that Fairport Convention reinterpreted so well but with a very contemporary worldview. "Vital Sign" sees singer Shaffer take center stage with a sound that suggests a love of Jefferson Airplane. Nevertheless, this is 1960s influenced folk without the free love and acid, as Shaffer alludes to something altogether darker in her lyrics. Similarly, rather than veer into untethered psychedelia, as with every piece on the album, the band pack the song with melodies and hooks until one inevitably rises to the top. If you want hooks, this album is brimful of them.
"Common Ground" possesses the natural, earthy folk spirit of The Creek Drank the Cradle era Iron & WIne. That is until coarse, distorted electric guitar shatters the calm before it's through. "Hen's Teeth" is another song that highlights the majestic, sweeping balance the male/female harmonies provide. Their voices blend seamlessly together as they again tease a standout vocal hook free for an impossibly catchy chorus. The kind of chorus you could swear has been written a hundred times before. It's this timelessness that is the album's core strength.
"Esprit De Corps" takes the album in a little more leftfield, hazy direction. A spoken word track replete with bursts of Crazy Horse-style guitars, and trippy harmonies, it is a welcome detour and one that stops short of becoming a full-on psychedelic freak-out. Rather than coming across as an erroneous change of place, it shows a confident group unafraid to stretch their sound to great effect.
That continues with the ethereal ambiance of the understated "After Us" and on the excellent album closer "Takes One to Know One". Here the band gives themselves more room to experiment as they tease out a looping, hypnotic guitar riff and buttress it with a sturdy funk groove heavily indebted to Jaki Liebezeit from Can. Over the course of almost eight minutes, the band does their best to put the listener into a trance as they lay floaty chords and elongated jammed guitar solos over the top. Lyrically, it encapsulates that idea of being defined by the spaces and places that are encountered every day.
Olden Yolk have crafted an album that will appeal to those that miss the heady optimism of the '60s, those with a more pessimistic worldview and those that sit somewhere in between. The wonderfully evocative lyrics are offset by the razor-sharp songwriting. The result is a dizzying album that refashions folk-rock music for the modern ear.