Yellow Ostrich, The Mistress

J. Edward Keyes

By J. Edward Keyes

on 08.16.11 in Reviews

The focal point of the songs on Yellow Ostrich's magnificent debut The Mistress is Alex Schaaf's tender, pleading voice. It's a reedy, childlike instrument, similar in timbre and range to Neutral Milk Hotel's Jeff Mangum or Nils Edenloff from Rural Alberta Advantage. It's looped and layered, stretched, manipulated; it's stacked and used as an instrument to flesh out the empty spaces in his bare, searching songs. Aside from a pulsing bass guitar, it's the only sound on "Hold On," a kaleidoscope of "ohs" spiraling around Schaaf's heartbroken opening: "Now that we've started, it's sad to see it end."

The upside of such deliberate minimalism is that it creates a sense of intimacy. You hear the songs the way Schaaf first heard them: as bare, hummed melodies floating around in the subconscious, with only a few instrumental hash marks holding them together — a splotch of guitar here, a thunk of piano there. Like Bon Iver, with whom he shares a Wisconsin homeland, Schaaf is a secretary of the interior. He's sitting alone with his beloved in "I'll Run," watching cars, then contemplating a slow walk to the churchyard; his voice clangs across "Libraries" like a church bell pealing in a small town, the lyrics cautioning: "Once you leave, all your stories will be gone." At times it feels like a dollar-store Radiohead, with Schaaf's voice subbing in for that group's army of electronics. The few moments Schaaf boldly busts out of the bedroom are arresting: "Hate Me Soon" explodes into a kind of Jack White tantrum, bruised blues licks throwing knuckles as Schaaf wails over and over, "You're gonna hate me soon!" between the blows.

Schaaf's day job is digitizing old Super 8 home movies from the ’40s and ’50s, and that's fitting — there's a kind of yellowed nostalgia to The Mistress, dragged kicking and screaming into the modern age. The musical simplicity is fitting: most of Schaaf's lyrics are the kinds of intimate confessions that get whispered from one person to another in the small hours of the morning. There are moments of childlike fantasy — darting butterflies, singing whales — gentle confession and, near the end, open despair: "Mary, you are doing drugs — don't you think we know?" Schaaf sings, crestfallen, in the album's closing moments. The confrontation is followed by a crushing silence, before Schaaf's voice — all six harmonizing iterations of it — returns, a soothing cascade of sound. He sings only a single open syllable, but the meaning is clear: Schaaf's intention is not to judge — it's to comfort.