Yellow Ostrich: A Music Review
It has become increasingly harder to gauge when a band makes it, or even if that concept still remains relevant. Yellow Ostrich, a rising band, appears ready to turn the corner of popularity. Their new album Strange Land promises to do well, and with an appearance of their music on Parenthood, they will gain traction. Yet, despite the forward movement, success offers little certainty in our niche culture of music. However, this niche market allows us to focus more on the artistry than on popularity, and part of what makes Yellow Ostrich compelling is the evolution of their sound. Native of Wisconsin, Schaaf started his musical career in the band The Chairs. From there, Schaaf turned himself into a solo act in his room with a plethora of basic voice and drum machines. In his young career, Schaaf managed to not only build a prolific catalogue, but a distinct style.
Schaaf recorded, and personally released, a total of around 50 songs, including stellar covers that bespeak not only a great taste in music, but a great feel for the mechanics of songwriting. Amongst these early recordings we find a re-imagining of Kid A for classical musicians, and numerous EPs, including one entitled Morgan Freeman that contains beautiful harmonic compositions with heavy electronica, put to the Wikipedia page of Morgan Freeman. Ever the playful musician, one of the songs simply lists many of the movies in Freeman’s catalogue.
Usually, such an release of early efforts feels presumptuous as if a famed writer or artist put his initial drafts on the Internet before the prestige of critical acclaim reached his work, but in the case of Schaaf, the Internet works for his benefit. Not only because it helped proliferate his music, but because it allows any person to observe his evolution. “Til’ I Disappear” serves as a perfect examples of this hidden opportunity the internet affords. The song, first released on an ep, the song, a desperate, moving, aching, love song with the basic melody built around a plethora of styles, electronica, rock, classical music, and pop. From there, as Schaaf brought together a band, he rereleased “Til’ I Disappear” as a bonus track, and the changes signify an evolutionary step. Instead of a hazy, electronica love song, he offers us a evocative, dynamic rock song that elicits nothing if not tears and haunting shivers.
His first LP Wild Comfort, self released to little fanfare, was followed by the increasingly popular second LP, self recorded, then rereleased by Barsuk records, entitled The Mistress. The record, built off perfect melodies, catchy, but complicated, followed a formula for its success. The record almost felt like a variation on a theme that speaks to Schaaf’s earlier academic musical background. The main ingredients included vocal loops layered on top of each other all in different harmonic ranges, and then a sort of soothing, pleasing melody that builds to a crescendo and a release. Though clearly far from achieving anything in the way of his full potential, Schaaf clearly had grown and evolved from a precociously talented teenager, capable of crafting gorgeous layers of song with just his voice, a guitar, and some sound machines, into a poetic writer of fully realized studio songs, still with his signature layers and loops.
Schaaf, throughout his work, and echoed by his bandmates, adheres to an idea of artistic endeavors as inherently incomplete. Every artist intuitively knows of the gaping chasm between their personal vision and the practical manifestation of this vision, but not every artist feels comfortable with the finished product, and consequently obsesses over every little detail. Schaaf, and now Yellow Ostrich as a band, recorded Strange Land in a matter of weeks, with the knowledge that the songs will grow with time, and the understand that live performances will allow the songs to take on a fluidity that plays to the strength of a restless band.
The new album finds Schaaf playing on the persona of his voice. His voice, angelic almost, boyish, innocent, oozes a sense of hope, of someone who would sing about a magical whale as a tale of childhood innocence. Fittingly, Schaaf opens the album where one would expect the creator of Whale would pick up, writing, apparently, about Babar the Elephant King, or using Babar as a way to discuss innocence lost. From there, Schaaf begins to struggle much more with cynicism, with a loss of values, and a search for meaning. Schaaf sheds his skin of innocence and begins to face some of the inevitable harsh truths of life. Instead of simply contrasting his churchlike voice with harsh music, Schaaf also chooses to sing about topics that make a small foray into the world of creepiness, which creates playful results. In “No Time For You”, Schaaf sings to a person from the past, perhaps his past, that he could possibly love them if they lived in the same era. Similarly, the song I Want Yr Love we find Schaaf describing less of an intimate respected relationship than a creepy, almost stalker type of relationship. Yet, ultimately, he cannot outrun the innocence, the hope resonating in his voice. Instead, what emerges is an overall genuine search for meaning lacking some of the easier cynicism displayed by other young bands.
The music, throughout, besides for some standout songs in terms of tone, finds the band in a more muscular, experimental, unhinged tone. The first notes sound as if the band forgot to cut off some early gruff notes from the amp, but of course, the prelude to the song sets the tone, perfectly. The songs feel unleashed more than anything else, unleashed for the band, and unleashed for the listener. The guitar, sparse at certain points, yet always amped up, full of distortion, snarl and lash out at the same time that it works off much of Schaaf’s previous predilection towards layers and loops, though here, the songs layer off the vast instrumentation and the different changes in rhythm from the talented instead of Schaaf’s vocals or machinery. “Marathon Runner”, a song that mimics the restlessness of the lyrics, remains the only song to make use of The Mistress signature of a quirky vocal loop to begin the song, though Schaaf never returns to this mark.
“The Shakedown”, one of the more excellent songs on this excellent album, leads you on what you expect to be a shockingly beautiful melody, but then turns into an playful angst-ridden bridge that allows Schaaf and the other members to let loose, to show off his solo chops. Yellow Ostrich works best when they whip the songs into a frenzy, leaving the listener begging for a release, only to give us a release sometimes, other times leaving us tense, unresolved.
The addition of the two new bandmates, Tapper a fantastic drummer capable of subtle polyrhythmic drumming, and just same straight up rock noise, and Natchez, a multi-instrumentalist who plays at least eleven different instruments on this album, not only affords Schaaf the opportunity to revamp and beef up his old catalogue, but allows the band to experiment with different sounds. Specifically, two songs stand out that signal new directions for Yellow Ostrich. “Stay at Home” starts with a strong, almost triumphant swing beat, and weaves its way into a great lo-fi garage band song that flits between a gorgeous melody and abrasive guitar solos. “Wear Suits” allows the band, building off the gorgeous, prominent brass work of Nanchez, to craft a sparse song of the despair of a late night wandering, perhaps after after a night of drinking, or a booty calls. Schaaf, besides his voice, takes a backseat to drums and horns. Many of the songs find the band experimenting not necessarily with a different type of sound, (though some do, using a range of instruments,) but instead with new paths towards similar ends. Up the mountains relies less on any inventive or catchy riffs and builds off a simple repetition of notes that builds into a catchy hook of a chorus. The album ends on a restless fingerpicking riff that explodes into a full symphony of sprawling sound, horns ablazing, drums fighting for prominence concluding with Schaaf’s falsetto voice rising above the din of noise, ending on a slow burnout of distortion. If these songs represent a coming to terms with harsh reality, while retaining some of the playfulness of childhood, then Yellow Ostrich succeed in crafting an elegant tribute to genuine communication, experimentation, and candor.
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