At the tender age of 19, Avigdor Zahner-Isenberg might not come across as wiser than his years in his lyrics, but the music he makes definitely sounds like he skipped ahead a few grades at the School of Rock. Indeed, it’s hard to say what the most shocking quality of Zahner-Isenberg’s Long Beach-based band Avi Buffalo might be: Is it the messy hormone-fueled mini-dramas that the songs are about or, rather, the post-grad guitar-driven compositions that build on and fine tune some of indie’s most time-tested formulas? A prodigious talent with a decidedly adolescent perspective, Zahner-Isenberg might seem to have gone straight from gigs at the strip-mall café to the underground’s major leagues, but really he has honed his craft since his mid-teens by playing with all comers, be it his classmates or local bluesmen. The result is Avi Buffalo’s endearing take on (pre-)college rock, a mix of innocence and experience that delivers a first album that’s both an appealing novelty and a highly skilled endeavor that belies the band’s relative youth.
Based on its chops alone, the mostly underaged quartet could get away without being carded at the 21+ clubs on its touring itinerary. Avi Buffalo might still be a little green as a band, but there’s a rich sense of interplay between the members, as much proficient as it is precocious. The most obvious and oft-cited analogue for Avi Buffalo is the Shins, which you can hear from the get-go in the shimmery strum and soaring melodies on the opener “Truth Sets In”. The resemblance is even more compelling on the eminently catchy single “What’s in It For?”, which embellishes its gossamer harmonics with a little countryish twang and some oohs-and-ahhs in the background. But it’s the subtle, considered approach that Avi Buffalo takes to its craft that is most reminiscent of the Shins, in the way that the careful touches on the self-titled debut really get you over time.
There are other points of reference showing that the album is anything but child’s play. On the under-the-radar epic “Remember Last Time”, Avi Buffalo takes Built to Spill as its influence, starting at a galloping pace that builds into a full-on guitar workout before you realize the group has locked into a churning groove. When Zahner-Isenberg really runs with his imagination, Avi Buffalo might as well be casting itself as Elephant 6: The Next Generation. In particular, the ill-named “Five Little Sluts” sounds like an Elephant 6 song that’s a little sparser in sound and more adolescent in theme, with the rambling vocal phrasings of Olivia Tremor Control delivering stream-of-consciousness eroticism like a junior version of Neutral Milk Hotel.
It’s Avi Buffalo’s lyrical content, though, that ends up giving away the band’s level of maturity, for better and worse. Interjecting goofy surrealism and some awkward bathroom-stall humor into mostly engaging songs about growing pains, the narratives that the band tells seem like they could have come from ADD notebook doodles. The stuff of Avi Buffalo’s juvenilia marginalia can be hit and miss, even on “What’s in It For?”, which fluctuates between cute sentimentality (“Maybe I thought you and I / Could run away alongside”) and clumsy absurdity (“You are tiny / And your lips are like little pieces of bacon”). While titles like “Five Little Sluts” and “Summer Cum” suggest some unnecessary acting-out, the songs themselves move between being quietly creepy and oddly sweet. It’s just that Avi Buffalo’s affect is a little hard to figure out some of the time, sending mixed signals as to whether the tunes are about overly earnest teenage yearnings or just about getting away with telling a dirty joke.
When they get the tone right, however, Avi Buffalo’s best songs are like period pieces for the post-pubescent years. “One Last” is a boy-girl duet between Zahner-Isenberg and keyboardist Rebecca Coleman that could be the standout on the soundtrack of any gross-but-sweet coming-of-age flick, with more coy innocence and pop charm than the genre typically offers. Tugging at your cynical heartstrings, “Jessica” could be the slow song at the rock’n'roll high school prom. On it, Avi Buffalo strikes a pitch-perfect balance of smart-ass and emo, as Zahner-Isenberg’s voice breaks just right on lines like “You know I’m kidding / But sometimes / I feel like you’re all I’ve got” to tinkling piano keys behind him. It’s a moment that shows the future is now for Avi Buffalo, even when there’s definitely more in store for these up-and-comers.