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Olden Yolk - Living Theatre Music Album Reviews

The Brooklyn group’s second album frames heavy questions in lovely, deceptively serene psych rock.

Over half a century ago, the French theorist and actor Antonin Artaud wrote a book called The Theatre and Its Double. The book posited that great theater is a form of exorcism, and the stage is a space where spectators directly confront their fears and desires. This way of thinking about performance became the basis for an influential experimental-theater movement born in the streets of mid-century downtown New York called the Living Theatre, which also happens to be the title of the equally heady sophomore album from a Brooklyn-based group called Olden Yolk.

It’s hard to pull off a record with roots in an 81-year-old piece of critical theory and not leave listeners feeling like they’ve been bopped over the head with a cast-iron pan. Olden Yolk have big ideas and big dreams about what type of art they want to make, and for the most part, they execute in such a way that feels both strangely soothing and impossibly lovely. But that’s how all great psych rock should function: you get bamboozled by the apparent textural niceties and then get blindsided by the depth of the lyrics.

The opening song, “240D,” is a particularly compelling example of how this brand of trickery operates. The track lights up in sensual soft focus; resonant keys meander in and out of the frame, co-bandleaders Shane Butler and Caity Shaffer share vocal harmonies, and the percussion moves like stop-motion video of a flower wiggling its way out of the dirt at the beginning of spring. Just as you begin to get cozy within the song’s roomy atmospherics, the previously concealed lyrics become clear. “240D” is at its core a song about watching someone die and then living with the panic and trauma that follows. “You can’t deny what’s in your head/and your pleasant thoughts/can’t wake the dead,” Butler sings with the placidity of a cloudless sky.

On “Castor & Pollux,” Olden Yolk lean furthest into their psych proclivities. The sonics here narrowly dodge a very specific kind of tacky 1960s sensibility: Vintage synths speckle the song’s horizon in paisley and gold, while a combination of strings and flute delicately arpeggiate atop what feels like a pile of velvet. “Violent Days,” on the other hand, shows the band at its most aqueous. A warm bath of electronics boils over from beneath the song’s surface; meanwhile, jazz-inflected percussion and guitar pull you under by surprise.

Then there is “Cotton & Cane,” a song that sounds as if, say, a Jeff Tweedy or David Berman disciple defected to the teachings of Procol Harum. Deceptively pleasurable in early listens, the song is about the complicated death of Butler’s father. Like Artaud and the thespians of the Living Theatre years ago, Butler very publicly summons the dead in his song. His seance comes in the form of blinding white light, gas-station lighters, and unrelenting streams. It’s a vivid and terrifying series of images, which might be part of what makes this record such a mesmeric listen. Death blooms up from the bottom of a nearby abyss on Living Theatre, and it feels about as serene as you’d fear.

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