Yellow Ostrich: Playing on Prefix

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Playing on Prefix is a feature on KCRW’s Music Blog in which writers from the eclectic music site Prefix hip you to what’s coming out of their computer speakers each week.

If you’re familiar with the Midwestern music scene, or went to college in Appleton, Wisconsin, or, I don’t know – just spend a lot of time reading music blogs, you might remember the Chairs, a band Wisconsinite Alex Schaaf used to front.

When the Chairs called it quits in 2009, Schaaf set out on his own with a four-track recorder – and in the ensuing year, released a full-length album, Wild Comfort, and a series of EPs as Yellow Ostrich. For those who enjoy measuring artists’ talents by seeing what they can do in compressed time frames, with inadequate or limited tools, or otherwise hampered by limitations, Schaaf’s 2010 output is a fascinating and rewarding listen.

The Fade Cave EP was recorded with only vocals and a drum machine – and though its simplicity lacks the romantic, pastoral backstory of certain other Wisconsinites, it’s still compelling (and certainly more musically daring). The Morgan Freeman EP is a hilariously charming tribute to everyone’s favorite sonorous voice. It’s structured according to highlights from Freeman’s Wikipedia page and paced with the melodramatic care of a musical – the sad song about the flipped car, a hopeful song about what’s next, etc.

As the results of 2011’s Pazz & Jop poll (and most year-end lists) attest, 2011 was a good year for those who traffic in looped vocals, simple instrumentation, and West African influences. Fittingly, last year’s The Mistress found Schaaf expanding his sonic palette a bit. He’s still working mostly with looped vocals, drum machines, and simple guitar or bass – but his affinity for (and delicate touch with) polyrhythms keeps the songs robust and interesting.

On Mistress, Schaaf’s sonic energy fluctuates like an alternating current. Some tracks are as low-key as children’s lullabies, some sound like pump-up chants, and others level out in between — something akin to a pop crooner backed by a Barbershop quartet Greek chorus.

Yellow Ostrich was once a moniker for Schaaf’s solo outpourings; now, it’s a three-piece outfit peddling the sort of songs that’ll make you nostalgic for the halcyon days of college indie rock. Often, adding a full band monkeys with a solo outfit’s sound in an unappealing way, but in Schaaf’s case, it gives him more toys to play with (compare the 2010 version of “‘Til I Disappear” to the version Schaaf recorded with a full band).

Schaaf’s two full-length albums deep at this point in his career; the third, Strange Land, comes out in March – and leadoff track “Marathon Runner” promises a bit of a stylistic departure from Schaaf’s previous releases.

“Runner” is more produced than Schaaf’s solo work as Yellow Ostrich, but thankfully, none of his dynamic arrangements and aptitude for arranging, stacking, and layering sound got ditched along with the four-track.

Having a full band to use only makes Schaaf’s Jenga-esque approach to songwriting more exciting.

— Susanna Young