Captures the fitful blur of young love and lust through the lens of an old soul.
Avigdor Zahner-Isenberg was only 19 when, in 2010, he released the self-titled debut album of his namesake band, Avi Buffalo. While teenagers, even supremely talented ones, can rarely be relied upon to deliver profound, timeless statements on love and relationships, Zahner-Isenberg exudes a wisdom beyond his years on this record. Juvenile song titles like “Summer Cum,” “Five Little Sluts” and “Where’s Your Dirty Mind” bely the album’s wellspring of mature, pained takes on the ephemerality of romance and an insatiable need for human connection, which may often be expressed here through youthful lust but just as often transcends it.
Musically, Avi Buffalo’s wistful, guitar-driven indie-pop—its sense of longing enhanced by Zahner-Isenberg’s wispy, tremulous vocals—has drawn apt comparisons to the Shins and Built to Spill, and those influences are most apparent on first single and standout track “What’s in It For?” Over a catchy melody, Zahner-Isenberg sings about the self-interest that can be both a virtue and vice in relationships, asking, “What’s it in for someone with nothing to do/ What’s in it for me?” But he also explores the constant second-guessing of oneself that’s inherent to fledgling relationships, even admitting that “I feel like I’m messing up too much.”
Amid the gentle acoustic guitar strumming of “Summer Cum,” he sings of unrequited affections, resigned to the fact that “…I will never be/ Allowed to walk right next to you/ And be the one that you want, too.” And he delves into breakup-song territory on the piano ballad “Jessica,” articulating through Daniel Johnston-esque vocals the conflicting emotions and confusion inherent to feeling a relationship falling apart, while offering the insight that “No one can make you lose faith/ Except for someone who you love.”
Though a largely guitar-centric band, Avi Buffalo explores different textures throughout the record without straying from a psych-folk-tinged indie-pop aesthetic. With airy vocals, clapping percussion, celestial atmospherics and even melancholic horns juxtaposed by flute filigrees on its back half, “Coaxed” finds the singer-songwriter spinning a yarn rife with mythical imagery that is clouded by the dreamlike haze of vocal reverb. Far more decipherable are the lyrics to the beautiful duet between Zahner-Isenberg and Rebecca Coleman, the band’s keyboardist, on “One Last.” With vocals at their most tender and frayed, he sings of regret and self-loathing, as Coleman’s mellifluous vocal responds with uplift and encouragement, making for a bittersweet track that captures the give-and-take of relationships.
Even when Zahner-Isenberg sings about lust and passion, he does so meditatively. He highlights “kissing in the flaccid points between our sin-soaked night” on “Five Little Sluts,” focusing on the calmer moments of reflection amid a zesty night of sex, and even allowing himself enough distance to consider that “there were moments which I would regret.” And he explores existential angst on “Where’s Your Dirty Mind,” lamenting that there’s “too much time to die” and alternatingly wishing for and fearing such an end.
Met with critical acclaim upon its release, Avi Buffalo would mark the band’s high-water mark. Their 2014 follow-up, At Best Cuckold, wouldn’t possess the same raw emotion or candidness. By 2015, having fulfilled his two-record deal with Sub Pop, Zahner-Isenberg put a stop to the band. Decrying the unpleasant rigors of touring and a general dearth in passion for the project anymore, he announced their dissolution with a social media post, claiming the project was making him “wake up sick, confused, depressed, out of touch with myself.” He taps into similar feelings with Avi Buffalo, but by countering that pain with pensive yearning and fleeting moments of joy and pleasure, he strikes a sublime balance that captures the fitful blur of young love and lust through the lens of an old soul.