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September 2022

Oct 06, 2014

Avi Buffalo


At Best A Cuckold

(Sub Pop)

Avi Zahner-Isenberg and I are roughly the same age. When his band Avi Buffalo released their self-titled debut, he was nineteen and I was seventeen. So, when he was singing about being socially awkward and voice-cracking his way through Pinkerton levels of sexual anxiety, I was receptive to say the least. Avi Buffalo’s first record was pretty important to me for a couple of years, but with the band’s low profile since around 2012, I kind of forgot about them. When I heard their new album, At Best Cuckold, was coming out, I was nervous. Avi Buffalo seemed like a band pretty much destined for a sophomore slump. The songs on Avi Buffalo seemed so personal and well-crafted that I thought their first two albums would have to follow that cliché about young bands: You’ve got your whole life to write your first album and only a couple of years to write your second. Plus, I really wasn’t interested in hearing another album filled with pubescent angst from the now twenty-three-year-old Zahner-Isenberg. About two songs into At Best Cuckold, I realized I had nothing to worry about.  

 Gone are the Star Wars references and the verses about porn. Zahner-Isenberg seems more concerned with figuring out how to have adult relationships and buck his quarter-life ennui. That’s not to say his wit’s not all over this record though. Take “Overwhelmed with Pride,” a spacey folk ballad that sounds straight out of Late-Sixties Laurel Canyon, where most of the album was written over the last few years. The sounds are blissful: an acoustic guitar floats along lazily; organs drone softly in the background; and the harmonies could have been lifted right from the Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young playbook. The lyrics are playful, drifting between serene natural imagery and ironic romanticism. “Lonely roads seem to follow me / These tunnels and seas / And these birds seem so fucking free / They’re nothing compared to me,” Zahner-Isenberg sings. The chorus builds to a millennial’s equivocated, non-committal shrug of awe: “And I’m relatively inconspicuously overwhelmed with pride.”

In the real tradition of the sophomore album, the production is bigger and cleaner on At Best Cuckold. But the band is strategic with how it uses its larger budget. “Oxygen Tank” features a baroque, Van Dyke Parks inspired orchestral arrangement. The orchestra could easily make the song seem bloated or saccharine, but that’s precisely the point. There’s a wonderful dissonance between the sentimentality of the arrangement and the song’s horrific and surreal lyrics. “A man carrying an oxygen tank is going to come kill me and my family too / If I don’t stop seeing you,” Zahner-Isenberg croons with the precise pronunciation of a Broadway lead.  

Don’t worry, though. The innocent, jangly indie-pop of the band’s first album remains intact. On the record’s second single, “Memories of You,” the band’s still got a winding psych melody, an earnest guitar solo, and a geeky use of the word “bitch” that could have sounded at home on a Mid-Oughts Nerdcore track. Thankfully, Avi Buffalo still wants us to remember that there’s no reason we have to grow up all at once.

Sam Segal