Avigdor Zahner-Isenberg is the primary brain behind Avi Buffalo, and rightfully so: his perpetual horniness and pubescent wisecracking charm are all-consuming. There are 10 tracks on the band’s second album At Best Cuckold, and all of them either drip with innuendo or carefully stack one-liner atop one-liner. His silliness softens and even plies the stiffness of his strange appeal. “You got magnum desire/I’m a cheeseball on fire,” he sings on Memories Of You, thusly achieving his highest and most accurate level of introspection. The joke here is that while Zahner-Isenberg might think he’s being ironic with this couplet, his own honesty renders the irony affectless. And like the rest of the album, this sentiment becomes something of an awkward hit-or-miss confession.
That’s not to say, however, that At Best Cuckold asphyxiates on its own befuddled upchuck. Zahner-Isenberg utterly embraces his atypical approach to indie, his socially inept aphorisms, boner jokes, head-in-the-cloud waywardness, and hormonal obsession. He takes these confounding characteristics and turns them into thematic gold. The unsettling, sometimes puzzling subjects of the album – however odd – are made endearing through his straightforward approach. Four years have given Avi Buffalo ample time to develop their special brand of twee pop, a functional mix of heartfelt openness and grotesque assertions, a brand that has become pretty emblematic of Zahner-Isenberg’s off-putting character staples. At Best Cuckold follows Avi Buffalo as the next notch on the band’s belt, the next step forward in combining traditional pop sounds with their own unusual indie aesthetic.
The album’s opener, So What, exemplifies the advance of their pop-rock hybridisation. The title evokes the kind of millennial “to hell with it all” attitude, and it’s simple. Two words. “I had a dream that you were acting normal/It made me wake up feeling like a stone,” Zahner-Isenberg admits, as thin guitar strands sweep the floor beneath him. The hook is light, the melody is lighter still. He repeats the chorus – “so what” – 16 times, but it’s not all that bothersome. It doesn’t even really come across as a mark of lazy songwriting. Instead, So What operates as the breezy prelude to an entire album of pointed, deliberate breeziness. Avi Buffalo are teenagers, after all.
Most of the songs on At Best Cuckold were recorded in southern California, and the Golden Coast vibes certainly permeate the material. Bright-sounding instruments often dribble into lethargy. The sounds of a piano, sax, clarinet, French horn, and cornet appear from behind a veil of jangly guitars. Zahner-Isenberg’s meticulous overdubbing process certainly blends these items well, but that’s all it really succeeds in doing. Sure, these instruments sound nice together. At Best Cuckold could no doubt pass for a modern pop record. But the songs never truly breach the indie rock horizon because they get too bogged down by their own artificiality.
Part of the problem is that Zahner-Isenberg doesn’t give the songs direction; they don’t build toward anything. While some of the blame for this is rooted in the tradition of pop itself, Avi Buffalo have failed to use indie as a means to equilibrate the one-sided leaning of their album. For example, Overwhelmed With Pride provides a very pleasant arrangement consisting of acoustics, a horn section, a piano, and dampened percussion. The tunefulness of the track is cheery, its dainty sprawl reminiscent of Mercury Rev. But whereas Mercury Rev could bolster the light-hearted swing of their pop scoring with stark changes in key or volume, Avi Buffalo seem to be content with gliding along. They still will risk nothing to impose veritable emotion on the listener, and therein lies their biggest setback.
While At Best Cuckold is an album of entertaining truth and teenage legitimacy, and while its sprightly sound and pleasant air create a funny kind of optimism, it does not offer material that will sustain itself over time. Playing this album a few years down the line won’t reawaken any deep affinities in most listeners. But in Avi Buffalo’s eyes, as with most people who have yet to turn to 25, that’s not necessarily a problem.