Review Summary: The sound of a band becoming a band.
Back in 2009, Alex Schaaf was making modest music in a modest room. The moniker was Yellow Ostrich; the music was endearing, if overly humble bedroom-folk. Not much to write home about, but I’d made that point well enough in my review of that eponymous debut. I certainly didn’t think I’d be making two more self-referential (read: self-indulgent) introductions to two more Yellow Ostrich album reviews. But here we are. For one reason or another (most likely the desire to kill the prophecy of my first ramblings), I’ve glued myself to the development of Schaaf’s project, and his latest release, the appropriately titled Strange Land
, sees his biggest move yet. He’s no longer working alone in a bedroom in Wisconsin, but joined in a bigger room in New York by two others – the duo of Jon Natchez and Michael Tapper creating a trio which forces Schaaf to relinquish his home comforts and, more importantly, a level of control.
It’s always a risk even taking one hand off the wheel, but it appears to have been a smart move for Schaaf as the dial on Strange Land
swings more toward affability than calamity. The sound has been fleshed out, and whilst there is a definite ‘band’ feeling on Strange Land
, it’s clear that this is still the founder’s project and the ideas are mostly his. Lead single ‘Marathon Runner’ rips its intro from a track on The Mistress
almost identically and for a second it appears that they’re content to settle for tried-and-tested formulas. But the song develops into a catchy, guitar-driven slice of quality indie pop-rock with a personality all its own. Elsewhere, such as in the preceding ‘Daughter’, Schaaf utilizes his new recruits to build the scenery around his infectious hook of ‘we can make a deal, I know it’, driving it home with his strained plea backed by clashing cymbals. This is where the band sound works well; verses propelled to choruses by tambourines, horns and bombastic drums, but peeled away or complimentary when Schaaf knows to take centre stage himself with his distinctive, boyish vocals.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t always stack up so neatly. The reverse does happen where good ideas are tarnished by an all hands on deck aesthetic. ‘I’ve Got No Time For You’ is a unique, warming, oddly moving number on Schaaf’s musings on a woman (presumably his grandmother) who died before he was born. It’s slow-moving and Schaaf’s vocals float along perfectly; it sounds as if the listener is following his train-of-thought – an uncalculated and pure daydream. But then the band appears, with an injudiciously distasteful entrance, and the banging and clanging drains the song of its power and purity. As a band, Yellow Ostrich is in its infancy, and it's forgiveable that they haven’t quite found the best way to show their hand both as a unit and as separate entities at this stage.
It would be unwise to say that the band should purely focus on Schaaf’s vocals. But using them smartly like Schaaf has repeatedly done in the past, situating them amongst unobtrusive guitar-work and/or throwing raw cuts together and layering them like a pile of autumn leaves, gives the band something different and may be imperative if they are to succeed. With Schaaf moving from his boyhood town in Wisconsin to the bright lights of New York and daring to transform his solo-project into a full-fledged band, Schaaf’s ambition to do just that can no longer be in doubt. Yes, it marks a sharp right turn in Yellow Ostrich’s progression, but since when did progression need to be linear? Whichever direction their frontman takes them in, current confidence suggests he’ll never be far away from a forward-path.