PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.

Music

Olden Yolk's 'Living Theatre' Is Both Vital and Dramatic

Photo: John Andrews / Pitch Perfect PR

Olden Yolk's second album, Living Theatre, is phenomenally impressive and powerful, while it explores small moments with great concision and ambition.

Living Theatre
Olden Yolk

Trouble in Mind

17 May 2019

The press release for Olden Yolk's new album, Living Theatre describes their sound as "oscillating between art rock tendencies and delicate, yet angular ballads", and that seems like a perfectly fine description as far as it goes. But the description doesn't seem to go nearly far enough in depicting the grand scope, the minute points of nuance, and the entire world of emotional and aural experience contained in just 35 minutes of music. Living Theatre is a spectacular album, remarkable for how much it crams into such a short space of time, and for what worlds it manages to conjure within the confines of ten songs, two of which are instrumental.

By way of a little background, Olden Yolk comprises two songwriters, Shane Butler and Caity Shaffer and they mostly take turns singing songs here. Their first, self-titled album, released last year, arose, again according to the press materials for this new work, "from a poetry collaboration Shaffer and Butler started in 2016, in which they would write a poem to each other each day". That tells us a few quite revealing things about the writers and their collaboration. First, that there is indeed a deep and intimate collaboration at work here, and second that this work originates in some fundamental way from poetry, rather than merely lyrics. That seems to be an important distinction to make.

Furthermore, the contrapuntal effect of alternating songs sung more or less by Butler and Shaffer, in turn, is quite bewitching. That's because their respective styles are quite distinctive and also eminently complementary, and this easy back and forth builds gradually but forcefully to an interweaving of their singing and songwriting styles until they seem to disappear into each other and become a new, third thing, which is Olden Yolk.

All of this might seem a little abstract, and indeed this album might easily be taken for a grand and beautiful abstraction. But there are plenty of delightful specifics to engage us as well. We open, for example, on "240D", with a rather strange noise. In fact, several of these songs begin with odd sounds that resolve into actual notes and instruments, as if they are emerging from the darkness, from the woods or from the sky, like bears or comets. Here the sound is a mysterious and unidentifiable warbling fade-in which then sidles into a gorgeously mellow acoustic reverb that feels like it's coming straight out of Laurel Canyon, via Conny Plank's Windrose or Kraftwerk's Kling Klang studios. In other words, we are seeing worlds and genres not so much collide as meld, so that we get a beautiful hybrid of psychedelia and kosmische musik, among other reference points, of which there are many. Olden Yolk is a band that know where to locate themselves in both popular and avant-garde musical tradition.

"Blue Paradigm", the second song on the album, this time sung by Shaffer, contains an interesting contrast of that aforementioned combination of angular guitar and much mellower undertones. It's also easy to hear a link here to acts of a common mind such as Cate Le Bon, Julia Holter, Broadcast, and even at a stretch Stereolab, and it might even be that the song itself is nudging us gently in that direction when the closing lyric speaks of "haunting you to read the signs". But the contrapuntal dynamic of the album pivots us immediately on "Cotton and Cane" to another sly but unmistakable reference point, in the form of the Go-Betweens' minor classic "Cattle and Cane".

The reference point doesn't begin and end with the similarities between the songs' titles, though, because Butler's vocal style evokes the sweetest memory of Grant McLennan's voice, while the spiky acoustic guitar is a lovely pastiche of the early Go-Betweens sound. That feels like a beautiful tribute, and one hopes a nod to another band whose canvases were small, but whose imagined worlds were vast. Of course, the Go-Betweens were also notable for the alternating songs of McLennan and his writing partner Robert Forster, and the dynamic between the two of them was part of the band's signature sound – McLennan's tenderhearted songs sat neatly and yet in odd juxtaposition alongside Forster's more arch and obtuse observations. It's not clear quite yet how the dynamic between Butler and Shaffer will take shape, but it's apparent in the way that their songs stand out distinctly on their own while blending perfectly with those of their partner.

However, this isn't a simple binary of "boy songs" and "girl songs" either. The neat and clear oscillation between "240D", "Blue Paradigm", and "Cotton and Cane" is broken up by the gorgeous instrumental "Meadowlands", but when the alternating vocal pattern begins again we see a different dynamic emerge, almost as if the instrumental afforded them a chance to reset the nature of their interplay. Shaffer's vocal on "Castor and Pollux" (perhaps the most reminiscent of Cate Le Bon of any song on the album) is followed by "Violent Days", which opens with an ambient drone, another of those disconcerting and disarming opening volleys of sound that characterize several of the songs, and then hides away a wailing sax in the background. Butler's singing here feels like he has almost inevitably absorbed Shaffer's vocal and musical style into his own performance of the song as if they are either switching identities or losing their individual ones in favor of a unified voice. It is in this moment that the album seems to become in some way the story of two travelers on separate paths, eventually coming together and then choosing to travel along the same road.

It feels like the whole album has been building up to its big moment, and you might at first think that "Violent Days" was it, but it turns out that this was a feint, or perhaps rather a preview, because "Grand Palais" is the true apotheosis of this coming together. This is the true centerpiece of the album (albeit on the eighth track) as we find Shaffer and Butler at this point completely intertwined, her lead vocal telling a tale of a friend in distress while Butler's spoken words are in the background, weaving themselves around the primary narrative, all while the music builds to a glorious cacophony.

The song reaches peak chaos and peak unity at the same time with Shaffer singing a bewildering combination of "Suddenly, suddenly, I can breathe, I can see" in a way that makes the phrases indistinguishable from each other, just as the voices themselves dissolve into a communion of incanting souls. This seems altogether appropriate when one takes into account the fact that the album's title was in fact inspired by the experimental and innovative theatrical movement in New York of the same name, founded in the 1940s, and dedicated, as the album's press release once again has it, to "creating an experience of communal expression". "Grand Palais" seems to achieve the perfect and very graceful articulation of that goal in the five wonderful minutes of its duration.

It might seem that there is nowhere to go from this giddy height, and it is true that we then enter the diminuendo of the album, but Olden Yolk carve out an ingenious exit strategy for themselves with the Beach House-inflected serenity of "Distant Episode", and the bucolic loveliness of the closing instrumental "Angelino High". This rounds out a truly satisfying and, frankly, very ambitious project. Living Theatre is the perfect intersection of nature and artifice, the very definition of what organic music can and should sound like, and it is a beautiful thing to behold.

9

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Jefferson Starship Soar Again with 'Mother of the Sun'

Rock goddess Cathy Richardson speaks out about honoring the legacy of Paul Kantner, songwriting with Grace Slick for the Jefferson Starship's new album, and rocking the vote to dump Trump.

Books

Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll (excerpt)

Ikette Claudia Lennear, rumored to be the inspiration for Mick Jagger's "Brown Sugar", often felt disconnect between her identity as an African American woman and her engagement with rock. Enjoy this excerpt of cultural anthropologist Maureen Mahon's Black Diamond Queens, courtesy of Duke University Press.

Maureen Mahon
Music

Ane Brun's 'After the Great Storm' Features Some of Her Best Songs

The irresolution and unease that pervade Ane Brun's After the Great Storm perfectly mirror the anxiety and social isolation that have engulfed this post-pandemic era.

Music

'Long Hot Summers' Is a Lavish, Long-Overdue Boxed Set from the Style Council

Paul Weller's misunderstood, underappreciated '80s soul-pop outfit the Style Council are the subject of a multi-disc collection that's perfect for the uninitiated and a great nostalgia trip for those who heard it all the first time.

Music

ABBA's 'Super Trouper' at 40

ABBA's winning – if slightly uneven – seventh album Super Trouper is reissued on 45rpm vinyl for its birthday.

Music

The Mountain Goats Find New Sonic Inspiration on 'Getting Into Knives'

John Darnielle explores new sounds on his 19th studio album as the Mountain Goats—and creates his best record in years with Getting Into Knives.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 60-41

PopMatters' coverage of the 2000s' best recordings continues with selections spanning Swedish progressive metal to minimalist electrosoul.

Books

Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.

Film

Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.

Music

Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".

Music

John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.

Music

The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.

Music

Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.

Music

In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.

Music

Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.

Books

Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.

Music

'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.