When he released his self-titled debut as Avi Buffalo back in 2010, Avigdor Zahner-Isenberg sounded like an improbable pop hero. He and his makeshift band were high school seniors when they recorded it and grads by the time it was released on Sub Pop, but the slack-jawed, guitar-driven, helium-voiced, indie rock they played would have been popular when they were all in diapers. Singing in a falsetto pitched somewhere between Bee Gee and Muppet, Zahner-Isenberg came off like a pop parodist, peppering his lyrics with dick jokes and slyly parodying the late-2000s uplift of indie bands like Arcade Fire and Band of Horses. Yet, his songs about social and sexual fumblings somehow managed to locate ageless insights in his wiseacre ramblings.
Four years later with At Best Cuckold, Zahner-Isenberg has grown up quite a bit in some ways, and in other ways he remains blissfully adolescent. He still dashes off hilarious one-liners, yet the melancholy — as well as the means of conveying it — has only deepened during his time off. “Hello, sweet pea,” he murmurs groggily on “Memories of You,” as though waking up next to a lover. But then embarrassing reality sets in: “My boner pressed up to your chest.” It’s a funny line, yet there’s no wink-wink or nudge-nudge in his delivery. Instead, Zahner-Isenberg, now 23, sounds gravely saddened by the intrusion of something as juvenile as an erection into what should be a sweetly intimate moment.
Singer-songwriters twice his age have trouble striking such a precarious balance between glumness and glibness, yet Zahner-Isenberg embodies both traits confidently and naturally. The awkwardness that informs his lyrics, however, is absent in the music, which has only grown sharper, fuller and more inventive. The tempos are purposefully slack, with little room for ballad pomp. The guitars swell admirably, joined by other musical flourishes: the staggering piano on “She Is Seventeen,” the rainy-day folksiness of “Overwhelmed with Pride,” the Coke-and-Pop-Rocks ramble of “Found Blind.” The album sounds almost — but, thankfully, not quite — adept enough to completely belie Zahner-Isenberg’s self-deprecation, which sounds heroic by the time he sings his last notes on closer “Won’t Be Around No More.”