So there’s this new band on Sub Pop that writes accomplished, sun-soaked pop songs. There’s a catch, but I’ll hold off on that until later. Singer-songwriter Avigdor Zahner-Isenberg (Avi Buffalo, for short), a surfer from Long Beach, has put together a band of his friends to record a debut album whose strengths can best be heard on lead single “What’s In It For,” a track buoyed by reverb-heavy guitars, plaintive high-pitched vocals, soaring background vocals, and a great major-minor chorus that recalls The Shins’ best work. Avi’s voice sounds like a pitch-shifted Isaac Brock, and his guitar playing is confident and deft. His bandmates provide unobtrusive support, accenting with the guitar and letting the singer-songwriter take center stage. Occasionally, keyboardist Rebecca Coleman gets a lead vocal, as on the lovely duet “One Last” where her yearning, almost twangy verses provide a welcome counterpoint to Avi’s nonchalant, gravelly tenor. The album sounds like the work of a veteran squad, with mature songs that exude a Pacific sunset without pandering or relying on obvious signifiers.
Here’s the catch: Zahner-Isenberg is about to graduate from high school. The oldest member of the band is 21-year-old bassist Arin Fazio; Coleman and drummer Sheridan Riley are Avi’s high school classmates. I wanted to withhold that detail until after I had described the record as “mature,” “accomplished,” and “veteran,” because there’s no qualifier here — Avi Buffalo is not merely ahead of his years, and this record is not just pretty-good-for-a-bunch-of-high-schoolers. There is real craft in the songwriting here, as Avi rarely settles for staid chord progressions and makes good use of dynamics. If the devil is in the details, Avi gives us a few touches of evil: the guitar-overtone introduction to album opener “Truth Sets In”; the horn arrangements in the dénouement of “Coaxed”; and the chorused lead guitars of “Jessica” are all welcome deviations, and throughout the album songs end with honest-to-goodness codas instead of tapering off after verse/chorus alternations. “Can’t I Know” employs the kind of chord progression more common in a jazz standard than a folk-rock song, which comes across with more sophistication than awkwardness. That said, originality — either in sonic texture, performance, or composition — is not a strong point, but the album is nothing if not pleasant, and harbors enough attention to detail to be interesting as well. There is a bit of cognitive dissonance between the libidinal emphasis of the lyrics and the airy, light, undemanding melodies and instrumentation underneath, but aside from that there is nothing to suggest that Avi Buffalo aren’t ready for the big time. The earth will remain unshattered by this release, but that’s okay; there’ll be time enough for rocking when we’re old.
What this debut portends for the future is more exciting than what it delivers on impact. Clearly Zahner-Isenberg is a crafty musician with good taste. If he is content to keep releasing unobtrusive, safe, Saturnalian paeans to crashing waves and teen crushes, that will result in a career that disappointingly wastes his talents. Hopefully a few brow-wrinkling experiences will give him ample material to mine should the band turn toward new sonic territory. Having demonstrated competence, I expect a little more ambition from Avi Buffalo next time around.