By Emily Eveland
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Alex Schaaf has never been one to rest on his laurels. Ever since his days fronting various campus rock bands at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin, Schaaf—now the lead singer/guitarist for the indie-rock trio Yellow Ostrich—has always exuded a restless energy.
"I tend to hate repeating myself," confesses Schaaf from his New York basement apartment. "If I'm not doing something that feels new, then it sort of feels like a waste of time."
Fortunately, Yellow Ostrich have an exciting couple of months ahead: The indie lifers at Barsuk Records will release the trio's thoroughly enjoyable new album, Strange Land, on March 6, and soon after, the band will go on the road with a stop at the 7th St. Entry on Saturday. They toured heavily last year with Ra Ra Riot and the Antlers, but Schaaf sounds excited to head out on Yellow Ostrich's first headlining tour, in support of the new album.
Strange Land marks the trio's second album for Barsuk. The first was the 2011 re-release of The Mistress, an album that Schaaf recorded largely on his own while still at Lawrence University and released online in late 2010. The new album is Yellow Ostrich's first as a real band, and it shows: Multi-instrumentalist Jon Natchez covers everything from horns to bass, while drummer Michael Tapper (formerly of Bishop Allen) cranks out dancing linear drum parts on his unusual modified drum kit. Though Schaaf occasionally utilizes the looping vocal melodies that characterize The Mistress, Strange Land is more focused on the wall of sound produced by Natchez's densely layered horns, Schaaf's in-the-red guitar, and Tapper's powerful drum sound.
"The intent going in was to make it sound very live, raw, and aggressive," says Schaaf. "We would track drums, bass, guitar, and my vocals live...though for a lot of the songs I didn't end up keeping my live vocals."
Recording with a cohesive live band marked a change for Schaaf, and for Yellow Ostrich. Even when he fronted the Chairs, a campus rock band at Lawrence, he always had particular ideas for the individual parts of his songs, even down to the drum parts. "With [Strange Land], I specifically made demos, which I had never really done before," he says. "I wanted to give the song to Jon and Michael to figure out.... I tried to leave room so we could flesh it out as a group."
As a result, Strange Land sounds much more muscular and confident than The Mistress, which Schaaf describes as more "labored over." The insistent electric guitar lick of "Elephant King" kicks off the album, which builds to a rollicking, layered climax before segueing into the angular "Daughters." The song's twisting rhythms echo the melodies of Andrew Bird, but there's a sense of urgency in these songs lacking in most of Bird's material.
Part of that urgency stems from Schaaf's voice, a reedy mix of Colin Meloy and Jeff Mangum. Songs like "When All Is Dead" and the spare "I Got No Time for You" find Schaaf pushing outside of his comfort zone, to wonderful results. Tapper's nontraditional timekeeping propels the album forward as well, as he constructs parts for a kit lacking both hi-hats and bass drum. All of the above, combined with Natchez's wall-of-sound horns, give Strange Land a catchy, off-kilter sound well-suited for Schaaf's inventive songwriting.
Schaaf also switched up his lyrical M.O. for Strange Land: He largely avoids the specific characters and what he calls "obscure metaphors" that populated his earlier releases as Yellow Ostrich. "I've been trying to get more personal and trying to make the songs something that I connect to more," says Schaaf. "I'm sure I'll write more songs [using characters] in the future, but for this album, it was an experiment to write songs without them."
Strange Land is definitely indebted to Schaaf's move to New York from Wisconsin after graduation. Though he concedes that he could have found success in the Midwest, Schaaf believes New York helped him get his music off the ground. "It was more just personal for me," he recalls. "I had to go live somewhere and live a life that was totally different from what I was doing."