Sometimes, when a singer has a somewhat strident or otherwise obnoxious voice, the words they’re singing go along way toward how willing I am to forgive their voice. For instance, “Details of the War” and “The Skin of My Yellow Country Teeth” are enough to overcome my initial trepidation regarding Alec Ounsworth’s voice and helped me find my way to really enjoying Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. James Dean Bradfield’s voice sounded a little cock-rock to me at first, but then I really sat down and listened to “Jackie Collins Existential Question Time” and all was well between me and the Manic Street Preachers. If you’re wondering if I had a similar experience the first few times I listened to Tom Waits, the answer is no. I pretty much adored Waits from the first time I heard him.
Where Avi Buffalo runs into trouble with me – or, rather, the first place they do – is that what Avigdor Zahner-Isenberg is saying doesn’t help me past his whiny, nasally voice. Because what he’s saying is, more often than not, really fucking annoying. And I know Avi Buffalo is a bunch of 19-year-olds out for a good time, but the graphic sexual nature of many of the songs (“Five Little Sluts” and “Summer Cum”, for example) on their eponymous debut strikes me as clumsily gimmicky; it’s like Andrew “Dice” Clay was singing for the Shins. If that description got you excited to listen to Avi Buffalo, remind me to stay away from your record collection (and possibly you when you’ve had a few drinks).
Musically, Avi Buffalo is standard indie: acoustic guitars, plaintive keyboards, even some chimes here and there. Nothing too offensive, but it’s hard to pay attention to the music when Zahner-Isenberg is acting like the least mature 8th grader on the planet. His vocal cohort, Rebecca Coleman, brings some relief to the proceedings, especially on “One Last.” Like the Besnard Lakes, it would seem Avi Buffalo has an underused female vocalist to whom they should maybe turn things over on a permanent basis. There are some catchy melodies (“What’s In It For?” gets stuck in my head quite a bit, although it usually makes me want to listen to an early Shins record) here, but it’s hard for me to avoid the feeling that, when it comes to substance, Avi Buffalo is wasting my time.
Perhaps that’s because, at the end of the day, Avi Buffalo’s big shtick is that they’re kids in their late teens who wanna fuck. I realize that, having been one of those myself, I should be able to relate. But Avi Buffalo is an unsexy album that wants to talk dirty in your ear for an hour but – too much information be damned – can’t really get you beyond half mast. It’s hard to be sexually explicit in a pop song and avoid being hilarious. TV on the Radio did it on “Lover’s Day” and guys like Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield did it routinely. Isobel Campbell could whisper-sing her grocery list on a song and it would have a certain sensual quality to it, even though the words are mundane. What Avi Buffalo doesn’t realize (or perhaps they don’t care – we’ll discuss that in a second) is that just saying sex words isn’t sexy. Tone matters, and the tone of this album is Privileged White Kid Sexy which isn’t where you wanna be even if you’re a privileged white kid. As a rule, we should all be aiming for Curtis Mayfield or James Brown (young James Brown) Sexy. Again, in their prime, either of those dudes could’ve arranged music for a cookie recipe and whipped up a single that was oozing sex.
On the other hand, maybe Avi Buffalo doesn’t care about being sexy. Honestly, that would be worse. Because where does that leave us? They’re just saying this stuff because their songs need words and these are the first words they thought of? If my choice is between failed sexiness and lyrical ambivalence, I’ll grimace and take the failed sexy, but that’s only because I can’t respect musicians who don’t care about the craft of their songs (both musically and lyrically).
The album displays moments of real beauty (the last two tracks, “Remember Last Time” and “Where’s Your Dirty Mind?” are too long, but they have some of the best bits on the album), but overall, it’s the kind of indie rock record that makes me want to eliminate the word “indie” from our collective vocabulary. It’s exactly the kind of indie album that makes “indie” a loaded word, at least to me. That is, I’m afraid that when people on sites like Fark decide to hate on independent music, they can use bands like Avi Buffalo as deadly ammo for their argument that Rush is the best band ever (seriously, have you ever read a music thread on Fark? Don’t). It’s far too indulgent for the ability on display (they’re not a terrible band, but the music is pretty nondescript) and, worse, it reminds me of the kind of self-impressed, cutesy bullshit the Moldy Peaches used to try to foist on the music listening public, some of whom lapped it up like dogs who enjoy getting kicked in the face. I never like bands that love themselves more than they love the listener or even the music they’re playing – that’s why I can’t listen to Morrissey. I refuse to reward people for public acts of narcissism and I’m not one hundred percent sure that’s what Avi Buffalo is up to, but I’m not one hundred percent sure that it isn’t what they’re up to either.