featuring the very best of americana, alt.country and roots music
May 13, 2018
Scott Foley, purveyor of dust
More than twenty persons have called American Aquarium home since the band's inception just over a decade ago. Matter of fact, the band of brothers who created 2015's superb Wolves have left and/or been replaced. The constant voice and vision through it all has been BJ Barham.
It was a master of understatement that decided to name their new record Things Change (New West, June 1). Aside from the mega-morphing of the band's lineup, Barham's life itself has changed, adding family members and untangling some crooked roads in his personal life. There's also the matter of what's going on with our country. Last November, Barham sings, I saw firsthand / What desperation makes good people do.
Barham embraces people over politics on "Tough Folks", certainly among the strongest songs he's written. While he acknowledges life ain't fair, that's not the end of the conversation. Neighbors aren't defined by where they place the blame. In the end, from one generation to the next our most important job is simply to find a way through. I'm caught in the shadows, the American South / Somewhere between hypocrite and hallelujah / Six generations of barely getting by / Six generations of hate, what's it to ya.
Barham is by no means encouraging a concession to what's passing for today's status quo. The alarm is sounded with the record's first words: She looked out the window and said, "The world is on fire". But what begins as fear and frustration is put in perspective by the pending birth of Barham's daughter. "World is On Fire" is a genuinely personal anthem - a curious juxtaposition that's not uncommon in the American Aquarium songbook. The personal is political. What impacts each of us is an issue for all of us. That initial anger finds expression as hope and commitment in light of such a personal event as the birth of a child.
I got a baby girl coming in the Spring / I worry about the world she's coming into / But she'll have my fight, she'll have her mama's fire / If anyone builds a wall in her journey / Baby bust right through itThings Change is produced by songwriter John Fulbright, and features guest roles for John Moreland, Jamie Lin Wilson, Byron Berline and others. Where Wolves and 2012's Burn Flicker Die tipped the musical equation in favor of more of a Midwest rock vibe, much of this new material is delivered on the back of pedal steel, fiddle and instrumentation more common to country music. Maybe we can look to the acoustic folk of Barham's 2016 solo project, Rockingham, as a "reset" of sorts.
Where "Crooked + Straight" conveys its story with three chords and the truth / and the ring of an electric guitar, that country spark shines through in songs like the good-natured "Work Conquers All" or "I Gave Up the Drinking (Before She Gave Up On Me)". Both promise to be concert crowd-pleasers, with sing-a-long choruses and music suitable for stepping onto the sawdust floor.
On "When We Were Younger Men" Barham shows an abiding affection for his former bandmates. In a Ford Econoline, chasing a shared dream to the soundtrack of Tom Petty, young men became older men as the reality of the commitment took its toll. It's a heartfelt tribute to friends on the front lines, burnt bridges and all.
I still think about that Summer and how it passed us by / Petty on the radio, us Learning How to Fly / I called you my brother but you were closer than my kin / And it kills me knowing you may never pass my way again.But ... Things Change, and it's up to each of us to find a way forward. BJ Barham and his new comrades aren't reinventing American Aquarium as much as they're charting the next step in the band's evolution. With the support of a new label and with a family waiting at home, Barham's priorities have become clearer, his mission better defined, embracing his status as a bit of a spokesman for the working class. With the losing side of twenty-five distant in the rearview mirror, we have no choice but to look forward.
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