Avi Buffalo settle for a sleeker, cleaner set of psychedelic folk on the follow-up to their more compelling 2010 debut.
People often characterize the sophomore slump as a running out of ideas following an artist's debut, where a second effort amounts to a diluted version of the first without any of the life or energy that made it worthwhile in the first place. A far more pervasive and yet less obvious syndrome is that of a band not moving forward or backward in the development of their sound, but to the side. This seems to be the case with Avi Buffalo's second album, At Best Cuckold, in which the band makes an honorable grab for a cleaner, more accessible and perhaps even mainstream sound, unfortunately losing the offbeat charm of their debut in the process.
In 2010, Avi Buffalo didn't sound much like anybody. Folk-inflected indie pop was still a novelty then, and though they fit in well enough with contemporaries like Local Natives and Dr. Dog, their first record was unique enough to earn deserved praise from nearly everyone. Four years later we have At Best Cuckold, and Avi Buffalo have gone from sounding just like themselves to sounding like everyone else, from the very-Ben Gibbard vocal melodies of lead single "So What" to the Sgt. Peppers-esque "She is Seventeen"; much of the album even rings of the Flaming Lips' peculiar brand of psych-pop that they themselves left behind over a decade ago.
At Best Cuckold retains much of the folk flavor that was in Avi Buffalo's debut, but, thanks to Mumford & Sons and the Lumineers, folk-pop has exploded since 2010, and without the unique warbly falsetto that singer-songwriter Avi Zahner-Isenberg sported back then (replaced with cleaner, more heavily-produced vocals) or the austere songwriting, the band doesn't sound as fresh as they once did. It doesn't help that they are now working in that tired, commercial mode of contemporary psychedelia, stripped of any idiosyncrasies and individualist spirit. By all accounts At Best Cuckold is the sound of a unique and talented artist playing it safe.
There are still oddities to be found, however, mostly in Zahner-Isenberg's almost impenetrably ludicrous lyrics. These range from outlandish and dark ("Couple nights ago I ran over two dogs / Then I ate them after", from "Think It's Gonna Happen Again", or, "A man carrying an oxygen tank is gonna come kill me and my family too / If I don't stop seeing you", from "Oxygen Tank") to frivolous but no less confounding ("I was not well and you could tell / I'm walking barefoot with some blank CDs / I borrowed weed from the campsite next-door", from "Found Blind"). Avi amuses with these absurdist lyrics, but they stand out so plainly that it's as if he's compensating for the hard normality of the music by crafting lyrics that are as transparently weird as possible. If there were more discernible insight in these offbeat musings, they may not contrast so sharply with the levelheaded music, but with lines like, "Bitch, I'm on fire / You've got magnum desire / I'm a cheeseball on fire" ("Memories of You"), Zahner-Isenberg seems to be more focused on inventing amusing, throwaway witticisms than anything else.
There is no such thing as the sophomore slump, of course; artists which eventually follow up on a debut simply have more pressure on them to strike a tricky balance between evolving their sound and not changing too much. Avi Buffalo have achieved this in theory, but the product is a mostly unremarkable follow-up to a promising debut. The band's audience will no doubt expand with this release, but perhaps moving forward Zahner-Isenberg will feel more inclined to replace the lost peculiarities that were previously hinted at; At Best Cuckold suggests that if he does, the rest of the magic will return.