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Live review: Avi Buffalo at the Troubadour

May 2, 2010 |  2:35 pm

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It was late in Avi Buffalo's set on Saturday night that lead singer Avigdor Zahner-Isenberg declared that he's "never written a love song," the line arriving just as his band's "Remember Last Time" was about to get lost in two minutes of guitar fancywork. The rush of noise, balanced by rather sweet backing harmonies, hit before anyone would have had time to call Zahner-Isenberg's bluff.

Celebrating the release of its debut album for famed Seattle indie label Sub Pop, the Long Beach-based act's hour-long set was filled with what many may indeed classify as long songs. Yet the young, fast-rising quartet -- the majority of its members not far removed from high school -- certainly strays from anything that could be classified as conventional. 

This is pop at its most intricate and meticulous, with tightly-wound '70s guitar balladry fighting for space with Rebecca Coleman's more playful keyboard and synth textures. Songs don't develop so much as take detours, with cuts like "Where's Your Dirty Mind?" treating teen drama as a matter of life and death. Yet Avi Buffalo ponders mortality with grace, and the act balanced the serious with backwoods ease, especially when when Coleman's soft vocals interlocked with those of Zahner-Isenberg, who is all high-pitched tension.

If the band can get weighty and dramatic in its lyrics, the mood at the sold-out record release show at the Troubadour was anything but. With the act's self-titled first offering released in stores last week, and Avi Buffalo having tour dates booked through the next four months, the club was clearly packed with the band's family and friends, lending a tentative, yet nervous excitement to the room. 

"This is like a talent show," Coleman said mid-set.

The act's debut has been winning largely positive reviews, and the band's musicianship shows a studious appreciation of its heroes. Zahner-Isenberg gave a shout-out to opener Jesse Rifkin of Wailing Wall, crediting his pal for introducing him to Wilco "at summer camp." The band proceeded to launch into the slow waltz of "Jessica," which paid homage to the elaborate, jazz-influenced guitar soloing of Wilco's Nels Cline.

Good-natured and a little nervous between songs, Zahner-Isenberg transforms into a taut specimen when performing, which gave the songs a bigger punch live than on record. Sporting a shirt advertising San Luis Obispo's  Boo Boo Records, Zahner-Isenberg's singing voiced is strained into something that sounds a bit like Neil Young or the Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne. An acquired taste, perhaps, but one that adds a sense of alertness to his carefully worded lyrics. 

"Should I take you to more functions, or would you rather be lonely," he sang near the end of the act's "What's in It For." It's Avi Buffalo at its most direct, at least in terms of having a readily definable chorus, and allowed the rhythm section of Sheridan Riley and Arin Fazio to get into a bit of a trot. More often, the band would explore the nuances in Zahner-Isenberg's wordplay, the arrangement in "Summer Cum" a fast-paced shadowing of the singer.

It's a wizened, assiduous sound, even if everyone in the band isn't yet old enough to buy a pint. "The Man said you have to be prepared to do an encore," Zahner-Isenberg said, and then explained that he and his bandmates were out of songs and would skip the tradition. It didn't work, and Avi Buffalo came back for one more tune, in which Zahner-Isenberg repeatedly declared he's "getting too old for this."

Indie rockers today -- few of them mature this fast. 

--Todd Martens

Photo: Rebecca Coleman, from left,  Avigdor Zahner-Isenberg, Sheridan Riley and Arin Fazio. Credit: Jeff Antebi


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