Shane Butler started Olden Yolk in 2012 as a vehicle for his visual art and songs that didn’t work for his main band, the underrated New England psych-folk combo Quilt.
In the three years since Quilt released a new album, Olden Yolk has moved to the forefront of Butler’s fertile mind—from the outside looking in, at least. The band’s self-titled debut was one of 2018’s most pleasant surprises, thanks to its efficiency and its sense of momentum. The songs are not too delicate, not too jammy and just the right amount of poppy. Above all, Olden Yolk is highly listenable, even after you’ve listened a few (dozen) times.
Just 15 months later, Butler and co-leader Caity Shaffer are back with a follow-up called Living Theatre. The elements that made the debut successful—memorable melodies, easygoing vibes—remain, but unlike last year’s self-titled release, they’re applied unevenly. The result is an album with a few gems and a few holes that perhaps could’ve been filled in with a little more time.
Let’s start with the good. “240D” is a mid-morning yawn of a song that sports the same kind of hazy, mystic lope found throughout the debut, while “Blue Paradigm” is punchier, with a herky jerky rhythm, stout bass lines and a heaping helping of Butler’s resonant alto. And all of Olden Yolk’s charms come together on lead single “Cotton and Cane,” which finds Butler in conversation with his father, who passed away shortly before it was recorded. “Your lessons are not dead to me now,” he sings, as acoustic guitars strum hard against a roller-coaster melody. “Pages have ripped but the truth always stays the same.”
The middle of the album sags, beginning with “Meadowlands,” a well-meaning but forgettable instrumental. Later, two songs—“Violent Days” and “Every Ark”—never really form into necessary listens. The former starts off sluggish and stays that way, while the latter is an admirable experiment that can’t quite overcome its ill-defined melody. The highlight of this middle section is “Castor and Pollux,” a smoldering song that offers Shaffer’s best vocal of the album, surrounded by a soft wall of sound. For a band that occasionally feels tied to one-ish tempo, “Castor and Pollux” provides a blueprint for how to slow down.
The patchy feel continues to the end: “Grand Palais” is a rollicking exercise in lush psych-folk. “Distant Episode” rumbles like it’s going somewhere, but then runs aground. And closing instrumental “Angelino High” is a lovely dreamsong with exactly the kind of substance you might expect from a lovely instrumental dream song: not much. Which is fine, because Olden Yolk established on its debut that its strength is in radiating consistent beauty, not throwing its weight around. There are beautiful moments on Living Theatre, but this time, the consistency is missing.