Song Review: “Jessica” by Avi Buffalo

By Nick Stropko

My story with “Jessica” began on November 2, 2009 in Long Beach, CA. In the midst of a show-filled senior year of high school, I managed to snag a pair of tickets to see Vampire Weekend at the Art Theatre–a tiny, independent movie theater–on their weird 2009 California tour of small venues (I seem to recall at least one VFW, as well as a skate park in Lake Elsinore, on the list of dates). After school, a friend and I rushed home to change out of our Catholic school uniforms (gotta look cool for the V-Dubz concert!) and made our way to Long Beach.

It was on this fateful night that I first encountered Avi Buffalo, who opened for Vampire Weekend. While their sound lacked a bit of polish and their stage presence left something to be desired, I was impressed by the group of unassuming-looking teens. Of particular note was the musicianship and songwriting of lead singer/guitarist/songwriter Avi Zahner-Isenberg, who tastefully integrated his prodigious guitar skills into lush indie pop jams–no easy feat. I was quite taken with the band, but when I inquired where I could find some of their music, Avi informed me that a 7″ was in the works, but nothing was available yet.

Fast forward several months. I was meandering around Fingerprints, an excellent Long Beach record store, when I asked an employee for a recommendation. He picked up a single, the cover bearing semi-abstract scrawling in what appeared to be colored pencil, and told me that it was one of his favorite records of the year so far. Upon closer inspection, I realized that it was the first release from Avi Buffalo, featuring their excellent debut single “What’s In It For?” with “Jessica” serving as the B-side.

While the A-side changed minimally from the single release to the LP, “Jessica” is…quite a bit stranger. There is a pipe organ. There are dogs howling. There’s jangly percussion that lacks much of a beat. Its ramshackle production, accentuated by being paired with the supremely catchy and polished “What’s In It For,” made it easy to overlook; while music blogs fervently praised “What’s In It For,” I’m sure many saw “Jessica” as something of a throwaway.

Fast forward several months. Having worn down my Avi Buffalo 7″ significantly, I drove to The Troubadour in Hollywood to catch the band’s record release show for their eponymous debut. They sounded far tighter and more confident than at the previous performance, providing depth and texture to Avi’s lovelorn tales of teenage angst. I eagerly picked up the CD and reveled in it during the long drive home from Hollywood.

The fifth song on Avi Buffalo, “Jessica” is a gorgeous ballad documenting a confused, unrequited kind of love that my high school self readily identified with. Guitar, piano, and organ intermingle and bounce off of one another as Avi stumbles over his thoughts: “I can’t express these words without mistakes,” he states, shortly after hedging his bets with “You know I’m kidding, but sometimes / I feel like you’re all I’ve got.” The narrator is self-pitying, bitter, and hopelessly romantic all at once, lacking the self-awareness and confidence to halt his relationship pursuits while he’s ahead. Unfortunately, high school Nick Stropko shared many of these traits, and subsequently listened to this song all the time while moping around and feeling sorry for himself. I would consider this a testament to both the authenticity of the lyrics and the quality of the songcraft.

While I once took solace in the kindred feelings expressed in “Jessica,” the song (along with the rest of Avi Buffalo) has stuck with me ever since, both as a reminder of my formative years and as some exceptionally good indie pop. Even now, “Jessica” can transport me back to a time of bad skin and unfortunate haircuts–thankfully, it has far more staying power than my Bieberesque mop top did.

Stream “Jessica” above.

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