YELLOW OSTRICH with 1,2,3 and LEGENDARY CREATURES at the Pike Room

doors at 8pm
tickets: $10 ADV; $12 DOS (buy tickets)


"At some point you wonder if maybe the grass is greener, and then you go somewhere else and you realize it's not that much greener — so what do you hope for now?" so says Yellow Ostrich's singer-guitarist Alex Schaaf, summing up the themes of his band's powerful new album, Strange Land.

Schaaf knows what he's talking about — he moved to New York from Wisconsin in 2010, got a bunch of acclaim for the Yellow Ostrich album The Mistress, signed to Barsuk and toured the U.S. several times with his hot new band: multi-instrumentalist Jon Natchez and drummer Michael Tapper. Still, wherever you go, there you are, and that's what Strange Land is all about.

"The Mistress was a guy in a bedroom," says Schaaf. "Strange Land is a band. In a slightly bigger room." They recorded most of the tracks in six days in a little studio outside of Woodstock, New York, and self-produced with engineer Beau Sorenson (Death Cab for Cutie, Sparklehorse). So while The Mistress used a purposely limited palette of sounds, Strange Land has a dramatically expanded one: Tapper's inventive, downright catchy drumming provides a polyrhythmic foundation for many of the songs while Natchez plays no less than eleven different kinds of horns on the album, lending an almost symphonic air, while his nimble bass playing helps propel the music in its exciting new direction.

Strange Land retains Schaaf's sweet, boyish voice and bracingly open-hearted songwriting, but adds a hard-won urban edge: brawny bass and busy, prominent drums, triumphal horns, and plenty of raw, overdriven guitar. As the album transitions from wistful but supercharged pop to new musical realms, it's as if you're hearing the transition the band itself made, from self-contained solo unit to a collaborative trio of outstanding musicians. Schaaf has a degree in music, and there's plenty of his gorgeous stacked harmonies here, but this time Natchez's horns occasionally take on that role, and it's all animated by Tapper's hip-shaking syncopations.

The opener, "Elephant King," is "my current self talking to my past self," says Schaaf. "I've achieved some goal but there are still so many important things to find. It's a song about struggle." "'Marathon Runner' is about the constant need to figure out what you are and what you want to be," says Schaaf. There's "Daughter," with its exhilarating final rush of horns, roaring guitar and thundering drums, but then there are riveting quiet moments, like the haunting and powerful ballad "I Got No Time for You," "Wear Suits," or the naked candor of "I Want Yr Love," mostly just drums, percussion and voice. And sometimes they'll just blam out a rocker with the swing and chug of "Stay at Home" or "The Shakedown," with Schaaf cranking out some wonderfully hairy guitar on the latter.

The lyrics were written as straightforwardly as the music was recorded. "They're a lot more open and personal," Schaaf says. "I didn't usually go for the big metaphor, I just said it. I got a bit of a thrill from being more open and direct, and from putting myself out there a bit more. Being unafraid of darker areas and yet trying to not make it totally depressing."

Previously, Schaaf had reveled in artistic constraints, like recording The Mistress virtually by himself, or recording an EP using only voice and drum machine (Fade Cave), or taking lyrics exclusively from a movie star's Wikipedia entry (The Morgan Freeman EP). This time he went in the opposite direction, enlisting some very gifted bandmates to help take the music in directions he never could have anticipated.

Tapper actually saw Yellow Ostrich's first show, at Schaaf's college in Wisconsin, opening for Tapper's old band. A few months later, both of them happened to move to New York City, and in October 2010 Schaaf invited Tapper to join forces. They played as a duo for another few months before inducting the talented and supremely versatile Natchez, who's played with Beirut, the Antlers, and Camera Obscura, among countless others. "When Jon joined, that's when it really felt like a band," says Tapper. "It's more than just the fact that he plays horns sometimes — he adds some things that can be quantified and some that are intangible, but it all makes playing the songs feel really natural."

Yellow Ostrich did several US tours in 2011, opening for bands like the Antlers and Ra Ra Riot. It was a pivotal experience. "I found myself tending to want to flex a little bit, get bigger, so people wouldn't talk over our whole set," Tapper says. That — and the heavy airplay the Velvet Underground, Wire, and Crazy Horse-era Neil Young got in the tour van — had a big impact on the new music they made, with its dramatic dynamic shifts and listen-to-me-now passion. "We took the energy from those performances," says Natchez, "and allowed the live experience to direct the recording, as opposed to vice versa."

It took that kind of power and urgency to unleash the emotional core of the songs on Strange Land. "They're about all those pent-up feelings of anticipation you carry throughout your life," says Schaaf, "and what happens to those feelings when imagination becomes reality, and you see things maybe quite aren't as magical and easy as you thought they'd be. When your future becomes your present, an explosion happens; tthat's where a lot of this came from."


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