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Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2011

Yellow Ostrich: Reinventing the Basics

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Alex Schaaf has a knack for vocal harmonies—which seems like an odd thing to say since his debut record under the moniker Yellow Ostrich, The Mistress, only contains one voice: his own. While Schaaf also plays guitar in the band, the real instrument that crafts the group's sound is a looping pedal, a tool that allows him to layer his vocals on top of another. A trick learned from Andrew Bird, Schaaf's vocal loops create lush, homophonic textures.

"I thought it was different and something that wasn't really being done in the stuff I was listening to," Schaaf says of the technique. "It was a way to play a part and have it be more interesting than playing it on a keyboard—you know, just making something sound different even if you're presenting a similar kind of thing."


Add banjo, violin and organ and Yellow Ostrich would garner more comparisons to 50 states-period Sufjan Stevens, but The Mistress
comes off as surprisingly bare. Written and recorded mostly in Schaaf's Lawrence University apartment early last year, The Mistress takes a basic approach to instrumentation—guitar, bass, drums and some keys. It allows for Schaaf's voice to take center stage and the loops act as hooks. The “do do”s and “da da”s are impossible to get out of your head (one song is simply dubbed “Hahahaohhoho”).

Yellow Ostrich's Bandcamp page offers an interesting look at his various bedroom pet projects, which are all available to download for a pay-what-you-want price. Among the seven releases, one was recorded with only vocal loops and a drum machine; another was a tribute to a venerable actor. On the latter, Schaaf was straining through some writer's block but had some music written, so he decided to profile someone famous (something the aforementioned Stevens does quite well).


“Morgan Freeman popped in my head first,” he says. The six-song EP rips Freeman's story straight from Wikipedia; it was the entry on the actor's rumored relationship with his step-granddaughter that first sparked Schaaf's curiosity. The page already resembled something like a lyric sheet, but since Schaaf only pulled snippets from certain sections, the end result looks a bit like a puzzle, too. Song titles include "Morgan Freeman's Selected Filmography" and "Morgan Freeman's Automobile Accident" and are exactly what they sound like. The final product is equal parts mesmerizing and head-scratching. Schaaf doesn't seem too eager to defend it, but he won't outright denounce it, either.


"There wasn't too much thought put into it,” he says. “It's just kind of an exercise, an experiment. I don't regret it."


Yellow Ostrich began as a one-man band, but it expanded into a bigger outfit after Schaaf moved from his Wisconsin hometown of Praire du Chien to New York City in August last year. "There wasn't any specific reason for New York,” he says. “It was just because it was the
big city in my mind, the epitome of big city life. I'm sure I'll be back in Wisconsin in some point in my life, but at this point it's the perfect place to be."

In New York—he currently resides in Brooklyn's Greenpoint neighborhood, which is "like 80 percent old Polish people"—he recruited two indie-rock vets, drummer Michael Tapper (of Bishop Allen) and bassist/woodwind player Jon Natchez (of Beirut), and together they blossomed their sonic landscape for their current tour and an upcoming album. Schaaf says to expect more horns, an instrument that hasn't been featured on any of his old releases.


“It's definitely a bigger sound,” he says. “It's a little more musical. There aren't as many loops. It's more people playing together.”


Yellow Ostrich headlines the Cactus Club on Sunday, Nov. 20 with Conrad Plymouth and the Jeanna Salzer Trio. Doors open at 8 p.m.