The qualities Avi Zahner-Isenberg showed on his first album in 2010 are very much in evidence on this, his second. Furthermore, both he and the band appear to have gained confidence from that first outing. The more direct language that characterised much of the earlier effort here often gives way to the more oblique that hints at the background to a scenario and at a range of simultaneously-held feelings,successfully conveying the impression of a protagonist not quite sure of himself, despite the vigour (or the bluff) of the presentation.
It’s a difficult trick to pull off and, without due diligence, as it were, could indicate little more than maudlin self-pity. What makes At Best Cuckold convincing is the awareness, for the most part, of just how much substance to deliver and how much to leave implied. At times, to be sure, slightly more content in the narrative would fill things out where, instead for example, religious imagery stands in for factual background (“just got one holy road” in ‘Memories of You’, and “so sacred is your love that you can’t decide which way to turn” in “Can’t Be Too Responsible”). The balance of the said/unsaid can be not quite right, and this is a challenge so difficult to meet it is rare to manage it to perfection as, for example, Bob Dylan does in “Tangled Up in Blue”. Yet, at its finest on At Best Cuckold, the stripped verbal expression works gloriously, as the echoing sound, vocal and instrumental, of “Two Cherished Understandings” brings out the best in the barebones lyric.
The uncertainty and ambiguity of the speaker is well caught by “seem” and “relatively” in “Overwhelmed With Pride”, where there’s a build-up from the slightly hesitant to harmonies and horns that push the vocal onward towards a growing assertiveness. It’s a simple yet thoughtful piece of constructing and indicative of a developing mastery of composition arising out of the encouraging signs in the first album. And again, in “She is Seventeen” the elusiveness of such words and phrases as “your family situation” and “fictitious” and “delusional” could be frustrating, yet the tone and the drive and the harmonies and the piano figures combine impressively to articulate the sentiment.
Details are more fleshed-out in the words of “Oxygen Tank”, and then the comparatively long instrumental break in the second half of the song takes us into different territory. Zahner-Isenberg cannot resist the temptation to provoke. Yet, again, it does work well even if the two parts are a long way from call and response.
This is an album both challenging and gorgeous-sounding. If occasionally over-ambitious, it is always attention-grabbing, and very often risk-taking in the most positive sense.