Essential New Music: Olden Yolk’s “Living Theatre”

On Living Theatre, their second album as Olden Yolk, Shane Butler and Caity Shaffer double down on the micro-focused methodology that formed their splendid self-titled debut from last year. The duo—both sing, write and play multiple instruments—locked itself into a windowless workspace for a season, admitting input from percussion-playing ringer Booker Stardrum; the rest of the band joined in when they got to the studio. The roots of the Shaffer/Butler partnership lie in a shared interest in writing poetry, and their process yields songs that are a bit like chocolate-covered espresso beans. On the outside, you’ll find sweet melodies and soft voices—inside, bitter and cryptic expressions of loss and anxiety.

Olden Yolk benefited from inventive rhythms that worked against the grain of their otherwise antique-oriented arrangements. (I’m betting that between Butler and Shaffer, someone has worn out some Chills, Zombies and Beach Boys records.) This practice continues with the quickly shifting drum figures on “Every Ark,” the tick-tock groove of “Blue Paradigm” and the way that the wind-in-your-hair lope of “Cotton And Cane” contradicts one bleak line that goes, “When the debts come.” Living Theatre is all about living with what you have to live with, and on those terms, it delivers the goods.

—Bill Meyer