Yellow Ostrich – Strange Land
(Barsuk)
Words: Raymond Saada 

Strange Land is as much the second album by singer-songwriter Alex Schaaf as it is the first album from the new trio behind the Yellow Ostrich moniker. Schaaf recorded his debut, The Mistress (2011), as a solo project at home in Wisconsin. His ability as a songwriter and builder of layered guitar and vocal loops was evident in that early stage, and Barsuk’s re-release featured three bonus tracks featuring the band that helps him bring The Mistress to life: drummer Michael Tapper, formerly of We Are Scientist; and multi-instrumentalist Jon Natchez, an in-demand session player with a hand in Beirut, The Antlers, and Camera Obscura, to name but a few.  Tapper’s adaptive style on his simplified drum kit—only snare, floor tom, shakers, and cymbals—and Natchez’s one of a kind offering of lush woodwinds and horns (featured on “Elephant King” and “Wear Suits”), colorfully fill in the gaps in Schaaf’s loop-based, catchy songwriting.  “The Mistress was a guy in a bedroom,” says Schaaf. “Strange Land is a band. In a slightly bigger room.”

“Marathon Runner” is the clear standout track, built around the best vocal and guitar looping on the record.  Schaaf hints at themes visited throughout the album, picking at the naïveté of his youth (“When I was a boy of seventeen, I know it’s mean, but I told my friend to give up on her dreams, she hated me”) and reflecting on the widening gap between our generation and the last (vividly explored on “I Got No Time For You”).

Now that he’s sharing some of the responsibility for the big picture, Schaaf is able to come forward more as a capable, screeching lead guitarist (“The Shakedown”). His boyish voice can be a remarkable instrument, especially in the texture created by stacking harmony on harmony. That said, as a lead singer, while showing genuine potential, he sometimes bites off a bit more than he can chew. There are a few brief moments when he goes for the money note only to elicit a benefit-of-the-doubt reaction of, “Hey, he’s young, he’ll find it.” But judging by the simple, rich songs on Strange Land, there’s no reason to believe he won’t.

Making the step from one-man project centered on looping to a fuller arrangement can be a delicate transition. The repetition inherent in such song structures can end up redundant if it’s poorly executed, and beyond that, building a loop that glides through a verse to a massive climax in the chorus can feel like dropping off a cliff if you arrive at a bridge or new section and have to cut out all the layers that kept the song afloat up to that moment, leaving a self-conscious vacuum around a melody.  There’s a careful balance to begin with, and to their credit, Yellow Ostrich—the trio—keep their record moving, humanizing the mechanized loops with layers and flourishes that are very much alive.


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