Each successive listen of Avi Buffalo’s eponymous debut album makes me think of a different band. Singer Avigdor Zahner-Isenberg’s choirboy whine combined with the band’s lazy jangle pop instantly brought the Shins to mind. That same languid instrumentalism naturally reminded me of Yo La Tengo in a few places. The occasionally skewed chord progressions owe a considerable debt to Jim O’Rourke. The Clientele, Belle and Sebastian, Love and many others have all crossed my mind during spins of Avi Buffalo. So yes, to some degree, Avi Buffalo coasts on the goodwill accumulated by decades of delicate pop bands with unique lyrical peccadilloes, but that hardly changes how enjoyable each listen is.
Considering that Zahner-Isenberg is only nineteen, it’s surprising to hear such nimble guitar work and deft melodicism. At the same time, Zahner-Isenberg’s youthfulness is key to legitimizing his preoccupation with teenage sexuality. A simple glance at the titles on Avi Buffalo (“Five Little Sluts”, “Summer Cum”) should make it clear what is at the forefront of Zahner-Isenberg’s mind. This a record made by and for the sexually confused. The fact that these tales of post-pubescent misadventures are married to summery pop melodies makes the whole affair all the more curious, yet beguiling.
As an album opener, “Truth Sets In” sort of shuffles in on unsteady footing, requiring a minute or two of awkward guitar noodling before the actual song formation takes shape. But the sharp little guitar lead that shows up at the end of each proper verse goes a long way to rescuing the song and instilling in the listener confidence that they are in good hands. That feeling grows exponentially when Avi Buffalo move on to “What’s In It For Me,” Avi Buffalo’s first single and unquestionably the most immediate of the band’s pop tunes. The song’s underlying thematic awkwardness is belied by graceful instrumentation and the sort of winning chorus that quickly earns a permanent spot in your memory. The unbridled tunefulness of “What’s In it For Me” carries over into the flowery world of “Coaxed”, which combines gentle handclaps and shimmering guitars to create a wistful haze. Avi Buffalo even indulge in an extended outro replete with horns and twinkly flutes that carry on long after the song has properly ended.
Perhaps Avi Buffalo allow for such an extended goodbye to “Coaxed” because of the nature of what follows. “Five Little Sluts” is a little less wholesome than what precedes it for reasons beyond the suggestive title. This is where Avi Buffalo enters into Jim O’Rourke territory (“Five Little Sluts” particularly reminiscent of the work O’Rourke’s fantastically ornery Halfway to a Threeway). Over a crooked, descending chord structure, Zahner-Isenberg imagines kissing as something done in the “flaccid corners of our sin-soaked minds”. In other words, this is the point of the album at which Zahner-Isenberg flat-out admits to being unsatisfied with simple making out. Yet, despite the seemingly unpleasant description, “Five Little Sluts” manages to retain the album’s endearing, though admittedly bent, charms. Even “Summer Cum”, with its talk of stains and tasting a robot’s fist, manages to be endearingly dreamy.
That sort of tonal juxtaposition is a large part of what makes Avi Buffalo such a success. Lose the discomfiting subject matter and you risk becoming artistically vacant. Focus strictly on the psychosexual element, and you end up a little too disturbing for most tastes. Avi Buffalo deserve a great deal of credit for traversing such a tricky topical minefield while maintaining a universally appealing personality. Sure, this sort of thing has been done plenty of times before but hey, you can’t listen to If You’re Feeling Sinister every time you’re in the mood for this sort of thing.