American Aquarium

Last Chance Records, 2012


REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


In 1971, after three-plus years of scrapping their way through clubs and theaters, the great British pub band Mott The Hoople decided they’d had enough. When budding superstar David Bowie—in the process of recording the Ziggy Stardust album at the time—heard about the group’s impending demise, he gathered the band and more or less told them no, you can’t quit, I won’t let you. He gave them a song—“All The Young Dudes”—and produced their album of the same name, which catapulted them high into the charts for the first time. In the end the band only managed to flail onward for two and a half more years before imploding again, but by then they had cemented a legend that had been more like a rumor before Bowie came along.

That’s a story I’ve been familiar with for decades that came to mind when I first heard the tale of this album. American Aquarium, led by singer-songwriter BJ Barham, had been slugging it out for six years playing 200-plus live dates a year in small venues across the American Southeast when they reached what felt like their own personal Waterloo. In the process of working up songs for what they had already decided would be the band’s final album, Barham and friends connected with Jason Isbell, who rallied the troops and came in to produce and play on this album, 2012’s Burn.Flicker.Die. While the lineup that delivered the album is long gone, Barham continues to fly the American Aquarium flag today.

Barham was tagged early as a “Springsteen of the South,” and for once the lazy act of slapping a pithy label on something feels like it’s actually pretty on the nose. His songs tell bracingly honest stories of fully realized, thoroughly damaged characters navigating naturalistic situations and landscapes, the only real variations being substituting his native Carolinas for New Jersey and adding country-rock elements like steel guitar.  

Opener “Cape Fear River” sets the tone with a narrative that takes cues from “The River” while painting a devastating picture of growing up in the modern South: “You either get locked up or you join the corp / Or you work the grill at Pete’s burgers and more / Or you buy a map and you pick a spot and you drive as fast as you can.” It’s an edgy ode to getting out, driven hard by Isbell and the band.

“St. Mary’s” brings even more propulsion and urgency as Barham paints a picture of life that’s both floodlit and full of dark shadows, a local hangout “Where American girls drink Mexican beer / And city boys sing small town hymns.” The familiar heartland rock breakdowns in the arrangement seem almost ironic here, a nod to the harder reality underlying those early Mellencamp songs. my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

“Lonely Ain’t Easy” feels like it could have been the song that convinced Isbell to throw in with Barham and company; he has to have played a role in giving this stately ballad the keystone number three slot on the record. “The only thing certain is we end up alone,” sings Barham, weariness creeping into his voice. “See I followed the rules and I played the part / And all I’ve got left is this tin man heart… Lonely ain’t easy / Lonely ain’t kind / Lonely won’t leave me / She’s a good friend of mine.” The flair and wit of Barham’s words coupled with his passionate delivery multiplies their impact.

Around this point in many albums you begin to listen for a drop-off in quality, but it never comes. “Abe Lincoln” is a terrific jangly rocker with a ringing solo and a killer closing line: “Staring out the window like an angel divine / Just another kiss that will never be mine.” The steady-building road ballad “Jacksonville” finds Barham doing his best Springsteen, making you feel like the stakes he’s singing about are real: “If I make it out alive, I‘ll call, you know I will / If I can just survive just one more night in Jacksonville.”

The ghost of Bruce similarly haunts the gritty, anthemic title track, whose relentless backbeat, thrumming Hammond organ and fulsome background vocal choruses specifically call back to Born To Run, even as steel guitar provides a winsome cry at the heart of the song. “Every night I’m my own worst enemy / I’ll find a way to quit when they bury me / ’Cause I can’t turn down the drinks when they’re free.” (Thankfully, Barham got sober in the mid-twenty-teens, a couple of years after Isbell did.)

The fatalistic autobiographical narratives come to a head in “Casualties” as Barham sings “We ain’t never going to make it like I thought we would / So why can’t we just pack our bags and say we did the best we could… If the road is where you live, boy / The road is where you’ll die.” It’s a dark, billowing tune about having your dreams defeated again and again and still craving the battle. And while the chorus feels a bit overcooked, the verses offer a powerful portrait-slash-indictment of the rock and roll life.

The same theme is arranged as an urgent, lilting rocker in the ironically titled “Savannah Almost Killed Me” as Barham locates one of the upsides of life on the road: “She was a Betty Davis double / With diamonds on her knuckles / And she knew every word to ‘Born To Run’.” The penultimate, heartfelt ballad “Northern Lights” finds Barham doing more than just winking at one of his major influences; his vocals on the first verse could pass for a Springsteen outtake.

The album finishes up just like it should, with a storming rocker that opens with one of Barham’s most evocative scene-setters: “We got part time jobs and full time addictions / We talk about god and his best works of fiction / A Pabst Blue Ribbon in a can kinda Saturday night.” Three lines in and you already feel like you know everything important about these characters.

American Aquarium’s Burn.Flicker.Die. isn’t without flaws, but it’s one of those albums where even the flaws have a beauty to them. It’s a collection that’s overflowing with heart and artistry and more than a hint of desperation, a half-court heave at the buzzer that caroms straight up off the rim and then drops right through. And it took BJ Barham from the verge of giving up to a career doing what he clearly loves.

Rating: A-

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