Things Change

American Aquarium

New West Records, 2018

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


For a certain kind of fan (me), quoting rock and roll lyrics falls somewhere in the yawning gap between fun and obsession.

The reasons why are complex, but the important point here is, that might not be the case if not for virtual quote machines like American Aquarium songwriter / frontman BJ Barham; I wasn’t three songs into this album before there were three quotes I wanted to note down. Barham has a gift for capturing simple ideas in emotionally compelling language within the context of rough-hewn, unpretentious Americana songs. As Bruce Springsteen—who’s obviously a major influence—has proven, you can make meaningful music within that template if you’re good enough, and Barham most assuredly is.

There’s also a bit of legend attached to this band’s trajectory. In 2011, American Aquarium had been pushing hard through the perpetual write-record-release-touring cycle for six-plus years with little to show for their efforts when a tired and frustrated Barham threw up his hands and declared that their group’s next album would be their last. Whereupon admirer Jason Isbell stepped up to produce 2012’s Burn.Flicker.Die., which became the band’s finest moment to date and a launching pad for the second phase of its career. Wolves came along in 2015, followed by more touring and a complete makeover of the lineup behind Barham, which by 2018 consisted of Shawn Boeker (guitar), Joey Bybee (drums), Ben Hussey (bass), and Adam Kurtz (pedal steel), with featured guests Byron Berline (fiddle), John Fullbright (keyboards), and Dan Walker (Hammond organ).

Things Change finds North Carolina native Barham further refining the craft of songwriting that has always been at the heart of his art. The music—alt-country or Americana, depending on your genre orientation—occasionally gets a bit hooky and heartland rock in flavor, but the serious-minded lyrics are always the focus, and sometimes have a tendency to just flow and flow like a Dylan opus.

In addition to quality storytelling, that approach demands a voice that’s memorable, and Barham’s is full of pleasant grit and urgency. Like Springsteen, he’s an intelligent singer wielding an imperfect instrument that he recognizes just what to do with; the rough edges on display only add to the character of these songs. my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Stately opener “The World Is On Fire” is very much of that 2017-8 moment, when many people wondered if the American experiment had failed, but weren’t about to walk away. “The load is heavy and the road is long / And we’ve only begun the fight / We just can’t give in, we just can’t give up / We must go boldly into the darkness / And be the light,” sings Barham, adding that “This ain’t the country my grandfather fought for / But I still see the hate he fought against / Give rest to the tired, give mercy to the poor, give warmth to the huddled masses and I’ll show you freedom.” It’s an earnest, heartfelt, powerful anthem about hanging onto hope.

“Crooked & Straight” follows with an urgent Drive-By Truckers-ish Southern rocker that’s less explicitly political but just as topical, examining Barham’s disillusionment with the hypocrisy of preaching love while practicing hate. Like many songs on this album, it’s ultimately about resilience and finding your own path in the world. “Tough Folks” adds to the impact with a ringing rocker about life in the South and standing firm in the face of adversity: “…last November I saw first hand / What desperation makes good people do / Life ain't fair / Saddle up, boy, and see it through / Tough times don't last / Tough folks do.”

Barham’s more somber and reflective side comes to the fore on the melancholy mid-tempo elegy for a lapsed friendship “When We Were Younger Men.” It’s an evocative song full of nostalgia for simpler times (“Petty on the radio, us runnin’ down a dream”) and a friendship that’s been sundered by time and diverging paths. That reflective tone extends to “One Day At A Time,” an airy acoustic country-folk number about getting sober that’s full of great lines. “Songs fulfill the human need / To sit back and watch another man bleed… Every now and then I miss / The way that highball glass would kiss / My lips like a long lost love welcoming me home.”

The track list on the back cover neatly breaks the songs into sides like a vinyl LP; side two opens with the title track, a gentle anthem to our need to adapt: “Things change and people don’t stay the same.” Then the easy-rambling “Work Conquers All” mixes a road song with a father-son coming of age tale: “I packed my bags and set out to prove him wrong.”

“I Gave Up The Drinking (Before She Gave Up On Me)” is just what that title makes it sound like, a response to (and inversion of) all those country tunes celebrating drinking, a playful, bouncy “I’m not drinking anymore” tune that celebrates sobriety with a series of punchlines. Penultimate track “Shadows Of You” delivers the requisite melancholy breakup ballad (“But when the morning’s embrace shed a light on your face, I saw leaving in your eyes”), before closer “’Til The Final Curtain Falls” offers a gentle counterpoint, a heartfelt song of devotion.

This album isn’t perfect; there are moments here when Barham’s earnestness overcomes his better instincts and the words of these songs begin to feel affected rather than authentic. But those are exceptions on a strong album that shows continuing growth toward the band’s more recent—and terrific—albums Lamentations and Chicamacomico. Things Change is the work of a gifted artist who’s still learning and growing, a craftsman refining his craft in real time, and its best moments are superb.

Rating: B+

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



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