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