Avi Buffalo uses the universal language of music to build bridges with people who might otherwise find him disquieting.
Avi Buffalo – At Best Cuckold
Avi Zahner-Isenberg is a weird dude. The songwriter, vocalist, and guitarist of the Long Beach-based band Avi Buffalo has an Instagram account replete with morbid, badly-drawn Microsoft Paint sketches of objects ranging from skeletons to skyscrapers to the insides of homes. As if this weren’t odd enough, the lyrics he sings on his band’s sophomore effort, At Best Cuckold, can be incredibly bad, to the point where it would be shocking if someone other than a thoroughly zany dude wrote them. Instead of being cringe worthy, though, Zahner-Isenberg’s words sound like a deeply genuine form of self-expression when paired with his immaculate, widescreen landscapes of gorgeous, reverb-soaked, crystal-clear guitars, lucid, precise pianos and frequently falsetto vocals. At Best Cuckold displays a socially strange twenty-something year old using the universal language of music to build bridges with people who might otherwise find him disquieting.
It’s easy to isolate bad lyricism from the songs on At Best Cuckold, especially since they’re often equally strange both with and without context. A notable example of this appears just after the album’s midpoint on the psych folk beauty “Found Blind.” “I was not well/and you could tell/I’m walking barefoot with some blank CDs/I’m borrowing from the campsite next door”, Zahner-Isenberg narrates with words so specific that the image they conjure is both unsettling, as probably intended, and straight up goofy. But the watery, vast acoustics and general sunshine of this track would really allow him to say anything at all; it just sounds so good that these awkward words almost become beautiful. “Oxygen Tank” is an even more blatant example of the poetic murder Zahner-Isenberg often gets away with committing; just a brief moment before the music begins, he states, “A man carrying an oxygen tank/is gonna come kill me and my family too/if I don’t stop seeing you.” Later in the song, he describes the “sounds of babies screaming/coughing, breathing poorly/in the backseat.” However, this song’s lackluster piano-based gloom isn’t nearly enough to excuse these images, making it the album’s worst track.
Imagery that’s almost as specific pervades another album highlight. “Bitch I’m on fire/you got magnum desire/I’m a cheese ball on fire” is one of the first things Zahner-Isenberg declares on “Memories of You”, which is at least partially about a blowjob (“hello sweat pea/my boner pressed/up to your chest/I let go”; “my cherry pie/please take my load/just got one holy road”). In this very same song, Zahner-Isenberg also mentions, in his words, “the mourning of the grandpa I never met.” If anything it’s a testament to the space oddity that is Avi Zahner-Isenberg, it’s his ease in thinking about sex and family within the same minute. The lyrics here are some of the album’s most memorable simply because they’re so insane, but what really ensures their impact is that Zahner-Isenberg’s high-pitched coo is drop-dead gorgeous, and the bright sparkle of piano and glorious guitars below his sentiments shoot straight into the spine. It’s incredible that Avi Buffalo can completely negate the flaws in their lyricism with such an unforgettable, sprawling melody.
Of course, a guy who can feel confident in publishing lyrics as bizarre as these could drift into some very unfriendly territory if he didn’t include some wholly resounding words in his work. It’s fitting, then, that first single and album opener “So What” has a set of excellent, albeit tangential and spontaneous, lyrics; the Real Estate-like guitar jangle that guides the song is a perfect match to Zahner-Isenberg’s ethereal, hazy vocals. The story told here is a lovelorn one, and the vein of faint melancholy running through this song also aligns nicely with this theme, making for one of At Best Cuckold‘s most enjoyable songs. Elsewhere, the gentle, heartwarming folk rock of “Overwhelmed with Pride” employs dismal descriptions of roads and birds (okay, “And these birds seem so fucking free” is the one bad lyric stuck in this otherwise stunning poem, but let’s not dwell on it). “Can’t Be Too Responsible” also gets by on some pretty solid wordwork, making Zahner-Isenberg’s defeated sighs of “I won’t give in” seem all the realer. An equally deflated guitar line is far more centered than the rest of the song’s instrumentation, and the dejected atmosphere of the song is unforgettably disarming.
In general, At Best Cuckold is an album that’s striking in its balanced sadness. This is perhaps most obvious when hearing its last track, “Won’t Be Around No More”, the album’s most explicitly forlorn tune. A organ-like synth hums lowly in the periphery as Zahner-Isenberg delivers his most steady falsetto on the album; the delicate acoustics of the song’s verses expand slightly into quietly fuzzed, fully heartbroken electrics. Naturally, a clunky lyric pops up here (“I stayed up all night/made sure I was hard/kissed you in the morning/right beside her”), but the track is so emotionally tearing that all its words feel endearing. The more Zahner-Isenberg sings “I won’t be around no more”, the more it becomes believable. In its place as the album’s final statement, it might also mean that this is the last we’ll hear from Avi Buffalo; after all, they did take a four year break of near complete silence between this album and their debut. The woe surrounding this statement will be shared by the listener as At Best Cuckold reaches its close, and this weirdo from Long Beach will have suddenly made connections all across the globe.