It’s a Friday, and 23 year old Avigdor Zahner-Isenberg of Avi Buffalo stands on the deck at the Islington Assembly Hall, relaxed and working his way around an arpeggio. The band have opened with ‘So What’, lead single from his second album with his band. Although your average Avi Buffalo show contains a fair amount of fret-wanking, Zahner-Isenberg’s confidence as a guitar player is pleasantly at odds with his self-consciousness as a lyricist - as this small, white-jeaned Long Beacher cranes his neck to reach his microphone, it’s hard to work out exactly where he’s trying to pitch his tent.
With the rather sad title of At Best Cuckold, the band’s second outing is less winsome, more crafted and a bit less obnoxious than its predecessor. It’s been a four-year wait, and it’s not just the absence of any questionable song titles (although the first album’s delightful ‘Five Little Sluts’ doesn’t get an airing tonight, we are treated to a stripped-down solo rendition of the evocative, ‘Summer Cum’) that belies his maturity. The new album feels less throwaway, more carefully put together. After the Californian insouciance of their self-title debut, Zahner-Isenberg describes new LP as his ‘tribute to the ballad’, and although the lyrics occasionally still smack of hash-brownie nonsense (“I’m a cheese ball on fire” from ‘Memories Of You’, or the cod-confessional “I ran over two dogs / Then I ate them” from ‘Overwhelmed With Pride’ [unless he actually did that, in which case, harsh mate]), there are some more moving passages to Avi Buffalo songs, more touching than the hey-nonny nonniness of his debut. Although often the vocals still sound like Steven Malkmus having his balls tightly squeezed, when the rest of the band leaves the stage and it’s just this guy in a spotlight, eyes closed, noodling around on ‘Jessica’ or stripping down tracks on a piano, the whole shebang seems less smug, a bit more heartfelt. As he says, ‘I can’t express these thoughts without mistakes’. It almost makes you want to forgive him for the faux-mantic reference “my boner pressed, up to your chest” on ‘Memories Of You’.
And even some of the stranger tracks from Cuckold have a blistered nerve sticking out of them, as the oneiric piano of ‘Oxygen Tank’ (a song borne out of Zahner-Isenberg’s Cormac McCarthy dream about a murderous man with an oxygen tank) is punctured by a heartfelt, non-falsetto “if I don’t start seeing through those lies you tell me every day”. This split between nonsense and tenderness is actually a powerful weapon, because although this Californian wunderkind can nail a distorted a spotlight guitar solo like it was Baker Street in a jazz bar, the mood of his songs can shift from psych madness to sad, alter-ballad in the space of four minutes. As the band return to the stage to finally whip out 2010’s, light and breezy ‘What’s In It For Me’, one is struck with the feeling that four years seem to have taken their toll on Avi Buffalo. And this is no bad thing.