It’s usually not a good sign when a quirky band goes out of its way to be conventional. But for Alex Schaaf and Yellow Ostrich, it’s the right call. Schaaf’s one-man debut The Mistress made the most of its limitations, using vocal loops and sprightly guitars to give everything a blithe, uncomplicated charm. But to promote the record (including gigs with Ra Ra Riot and The Antlers), he needed backing musicians, and Yellow Ostrich became a bona fide rock band in the process. Given the impressive talents of drummer Michael Tapper (formerly of We Are Scientists) and multi-instrumentalist Jon Natchez, it’s hard to imagine the band restricting itself to The Mistress’ lo-fi aesthetic.
Wisely, sophomore LP Strange Land plays to the new group’s strengths: noise, volume, and energy. It’s power-rock of the most familiar variety, but the trio’s evident enthusiasm makes it work; Strange Land is built for a frenetic live show that will likely both win and lose the band fans. With a penchant for amped-up swells and epic jammers, Strange Land has multiple concert-ready tracks, including “I Got No Time For You,” a plodding and moody burner that devolves into a brawny, crashing denouement. Ultimately, however, the jarring distortion and reckless abandon also have to compensate for the lack of memorable songs.
There’s a lot that’s commendable about the band’s expanded sound—Tapper’s dramatic rhythm-keeping and Natchez’s creative arrangements provide constant thrills—but there aren’t many tracks that demand repeat listens. The album’s highlights are actually those songs that deviate from the new guitar-driven gameplan: “I Want Yr Love,” for example, slinks along to a patchwork of percussion, vocals, and horns, slowly layering them into a funky chaos. As indie minimalism goes, The Mistress, with its drum machines and playful harmonies, wasn’t particularly groundbreaking—but, as is often the case, a handful of catchy songs was all it took to stand apart from the pack. Strange Land successfully adapts Yellow Ostrich’s sound to match its members’ considerable capabilities. Now Schaaf just has to adapt his songwriting.