Things have been good for Alex Schaaf. After releasing his debut full-length as Yellow Ostrich in 2010, Schaaf moved to New York City, gained two additional band members and started making music in the studio instead of his bedroom. As a result, the music that accompanies Yellow Ostrich on its latest Barsuk release, Strange Land, has a much fuller sound.
During the first couple of seconds of album opener “Elephant King,” there’s a moment where the band adjusts its instruments and gets ready to perform. On other albums, this might be a stylistic choice, but for Yellow Ostrich, it’s a statement about where Schaaf is musically. Schaaf has mentioned many times in interviews that Strange Land is a different album than his previous work because Yellow Ostrich is a band now. That band dynamic is easy to see on Strange Land as each member plays an important role in the final product. On “The Shakedown,” Michael Tapper’s prominent, thumping drums are as essential as Schaaf’s raw rock guitar. This relationship allows for some truly fantastic crescendos and climaxes like during the soaring last half of “I Got No Time For You.”
But the album is more than just an energetic, meat-and-potatoes rock offering as Jon Natchez adds some much-appreciated bass and horns to the mix. And even though Yellow Ostrich succeeds at creating catchy, clean-sounding indie rock, that style doesn’t dominate the album. Tracks like “I Got No Time For You” and “Wear Suits” dial down the energy and aim for a more atmospheric experience with sparse beats and Schaaf’s haunting vocals in the foreground.
Throughout the album, Schaaf’s lyrics switch between a man in love (“I Want Yr Love”) and a man having an existential crisis (“Wear Suits”). It’s fitting then that the album closes with “When All Is Dead,” a combination of both themes. On it, Schaaf reassures, “I will wait for you/That’s all I will do.” But then after a chaotic instrumental freakout, Schaaf wails, “When all is dead and I am/The only one with legs to stand/Will it be right?” Schaaf isn’t standing alone in Yellow Ostrich anymore, and while the idea of it being a full-fledged band now might spook some fans, there’s no need to worry: Schaaf might not be solo, but his boyish vocals and candid lyrics are still at the center.