In “WHALE,” Alex Schaaf’s reedy tenor weaves up and around
itself, layered in harmonies, offset by intricate counterparts, punctuated by
raucous, celebratory bursts of percussion and offhand scribbles of guitar. The
best moments of The Mistress,
“WHALE” included, are like this – driven by complicated, multiply-overdubbed
melodies that are both home-tape rough and baroquely ornate.
Schaaf is a native of Wisconsin currently residing in
Brooklyn, who wrote and arranged the songs for this debut album in his bedroom.
More recently, though, he’s augmented his Yellow Ostrich project with Fool’s
Gold percussionist (and ex-We Are Scientists’ drummer) Michael Tapper, and Beirut
multi-instrumentalist John Natchez. Actually, Beirut is a decent reference
point for Schaaf’s creaky yet evocative vocal style, and when he breaks free of
the elaborate arrangements, he sounds like a happier, less ethnically curious
Zach Condon. Still, as a pure indie pop singer, as for instance in the
laid-back “I’ll Run”, there’s nothing very remarkable about Schaaf. It’s only
in the album’s busiest, most multi-layered arrangements that his songs take off.
Consider “Campaign,” which begins in a hail of
all-over-the-kit drumming and coalesces around a wordless vocal fillip
constructed entirely of staccato “ohs” and “ahs”. There’s a bass (or maybe a
guitar) slipped into the texture, and Schaaf slathers a legato melody over the
top, but for the most part, the song is pure giddy rhythm, a pounding and
galloping and yelping euphoria, intricately arranged, but jubilantly played. “Whale,”
too, is an ecstatic rampage, its thump and click drum cadence echoed in a
barber-shop chorus gone Fauve (which is to say, wildly colorful in a not
entirely natural way).
Elaborate vocal arrangements have been part of the indie rock territory for the
last several years, starting maybe with the success of Grizzly Bear and
filtering through the Fleet Foxes and Bon Ivers. But while these bands’
beauties turn, occasionally static and, let’s be honest, a little boring,
Yellow Ostrich has just enough rough-and-tumble to ward off the preciousness. It
also doesn’t hurt that Schaaf’s lyrics are goofily naïve, the kind of
bright-eyed, bushy-tailed inanities that are impossible to take too seriously. Opener, “I Think U Are Great,” (whose lyrics
are those five words), is this year’s best combination of vocal complexity and
lyrical banality. How can you resist a guy who arranges a text message into
three part harmonies?
“WHALE” JENNIFER KELLY