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Avi Buffalo
Avi Buffalo Ross Pounds , April 26th, 2010 12:07

Let's begin at the beginning. Avi Buffalo, Avigdor Zahner-Isenberg to his parents, is 19 years old. He's from California. He signed to Sub Pop whilst he was still at school. From the age of 13 he was mentored by bluesman Joel Weinberg, thrust onstage week after week in order to hone his craft the old fashioned way. He played guitar for 14 hours a day, was in three bands at once, flunked high school then inked the deal with Seattle's finest – like the prodigious kid from some lost Noah Baumbach movie caught up in the narrative of a mid-90s Gus van Sant film. It's the teen prodigy archetype as sketched out by Pitchfork. But does a great back-story make a great album? Well, kind of.

Zahler-Isenberg's eponymous debut (rounded out by a full band) is a curious creature: alternately beguiling and frustrating, the work of someone with evident talent, but slightly, oddly off. It feels like a rush of ideas poured out onto paper, some rounded and beautiful, others only half formed. It's a document of fading teenage years by someone not yet out of them, sometimes an obvious homage to his heroes, sometimes a clear attempt to place himself as a songwriter above and beyond comparison. Take his voice for example. On lead single 'What's In It For?' he sounds uncannily like Shins frontman James Mercer, on 'Jessica' he apes the lovelorn, heart-in-mouth romanticism of Kevin Drew, while on 'Summer Cum' he comes across as a helium-voiced Nick Thorburn. It's a voice which seems to act as a map through his influences, a tell tale sign of what was being listened to at a certain point in time, loves almost forgotten but never completely lost.

There's a restlessness at play, one which suggests, admirably, that Zahler-Isenberg is already ready to move on, to leave behind the teen idols of the past and strike out on his own. "I'm definitely lost," he noted recently, "and I need to find a path." And that's more or less what Avi Buffalo sounds like: an attempt to progress, sketches put to tape as a way of working out some existential dilemma. It's the album as a form of dilution: all those ideas and influences thrown into the melting pot, some sticking and some sinking without a trace.

Despite all that, there's a great deal to admire here. Zahler-Isenberg clearly has a glorious ear for melody, the gorgeously cascading guitar lilting under the coos of 'Jessica' a fine case in point. It's a sound eerily reminiscent of Americana, something borrowed from the vaults of Duane Allman or the Flying Burrito Brothers, evocative and warm, a forgotten memory floating back into consciousness. It feels like something that's been around forever, one of those things that sticks in the mind half-lost but ready to found, like the blood on the collar of a charity shop shirt.

Lyrically, too, Zahler-Isenberg seems wise beyond his years. At times erudite and candid, at others wonderfully wry and bratty, the album is one full of rumination and self-awareness, running the gamut from throwaway non-sequiturs ("You are tiny/ and your lips are like little pieces of bacon, on 'What's in it For?') to moments of heart-stopping simplicity, like the chorus on the epic centrepiece and album standout 'Remember Last Time'. "I've never written a love song/but I will for you," he sings, imbuing words of such simplicity with a yearning and desire one would think would be far beyond a man so young. It's a beautiful moment, equal parts Band of Horses and Broken Social Scene, and the surest indication that a fine future awaits. As the song bows out on the back of a two-minute guitar solo that would have J Mascis bowing down in appreciation one gets a real sense of what Zahler-Isenberg might be capable of, a brilliant, tantalising glimpse of the promise Sub Pop so obviously saw when they signed him.

So, where do we go from here? The world is a big place when it's all at your feet. If he can work out those crises, figure out where he wants to go and who he wants to be then Zahler-Isenberg will have everyone eating out of his palm. It's about finding a sound, following your own path, not burning out or fading away. As he matures, one gets the sense that his music will to, that the moments of promise shown here will become fully-fledged. Get lost and find yourself. It's that obligatory teen rite-of-passage. Growing up is hard to do.

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