“What’s in it for someone with nothing to do? What’s in it for me?” In 2010 Avi Zahner-Isenberg, front man of psychedelic indie rock group Avi Buffalo, asked this question with more earnest than his typical slacker self. Returning to true form with At Best Cuckold‘s lead single, he seems to have received an answer to that question. His response? “So What?” Four years after the Long Beach natives’ self titled debut, Avi Buffalo has emerged out of obscurity once again. Avi’s apathetic chant on “So What” seems to indicate that the crass twenty-something guitarist hasn’t grown much since we last saw him, but in fact At Best Cuckold proves to be a coy, vague portrait of a man who cared too much.
At Best Cuckold‘s aforementioned opening track showcases a dramatic change in Avi’s vocals that remains true throughout the album. Very seldom do we hear his Daniel Johnston meets Elliott Smith, high pitched yet quirky whine prevalent throughout Avi Buffalo. Instead we hear him using his more muted middle range to great effect. “Can’t Be Too Responsible” is a light and airy track that allows Avi to melt into the instrumentation. “Found Blind” applies a Pixies-esque treatment to its structure – soft and brooding verses break way to sweeping acoustic chords and buzzsaw electric strings, with Avi crooning strongly over them.
This isn’t to say that the summer charm of their last project is completely gone. “Think It’s Gonna Happen Again” reintroduces the signature yelp, mellowing out only when the 90’s-inspired guitar riff comes in for the chorus. “Memories of You” is a completely off-the-wall introspective look at coping with a recent breakup. The wild performance and absurd lyrics, which have the aura of Wayne Coyne and The Flaming Lips, are welcomingly interrupted by a face-melting guitar solo to close the song out.
Piano ballads “She is Seventeen” and “Oxygen Tank” further assert Avi’s unique lyrical skills we were introduced to back in 2010. “A man carrying an oxygen tank is going to come kill me, and my family too, if I don’t stop seeing you” he blurts as the opening lines to “Oxygen Tank.” The song maintains his signature quirk until an extraordinary guitar solo bursts in towards the back half. Zahner-Isenberg is making his pitch to be regarded as a top guitarist in today’s independent music landscape, and it is hard to balk at the idea.
The standout track on the album is the stunning “Overwhelmed with Pride.” Quieter than almost every other song on the album, and coming off the equally great but criminally short “Two Cherished Understandings,” the song encompasses every aspect of Avi’s skill set. Beginning with a summery, melancholy chord progression, Avi’s raw delivery portrays a man fooling himself into believing he’s happy. A beautiful, fragile horn section rises with the chorus, and while his guitar work on the track isn’t as technical as in others, what is displayed is executed perfectly.
There are nods to Avi’s seemingly tumultuous four year absence scattered throughout the album. Most explicitly stated on the heart-wrenching closer “Won’t Be Around No More,” it seems the front man may have lost something close to him, something that has clearly affected him and the band as a whole. Could this be related to the notable absence of Avi’s talented significant other, his perfect counterpart featured prominently on Avi Buffalo? It seems likely, but delving into his personal life to find out the truth of it isn’t necessary here. Whatever has occurred has left us with a more focused, introspective and meaningful album compared to their great summer-rock debut that is well worth the four year wait.