BJ Barham has carved out a spot among modern songwriters with his a signature brand of hardscrabble songs that evoke the best parts of Springsteen and Isbell, but with enough Carolina grit to make them completely his own. As Barham’s band has grown and undergone changes, so has his recorded output. The changes are subtle and smooth. On the Aquarium’s latest release, Lamentations, producer Shooter Jennings works to smooth out the rough edges where necessary, yet also amplify them when mandatory.
Barham’s not afraid to tackle any subject. Politics, addiction, abuse, desperation, elation, parenthood, economics. It’s all here. American Aquarium’s story is truly the namesake of its former. A tale as well-worn as the band’s namesake. In the fractured landscape of our modern society, Barham uses this record (and many of those before it) to turn the mirror on ourselves. “Before the Dogwood Blooms” details a life all too familiar to so many folks. The bills are coming due, the money isn’t there and the despair is only resolved by a faintly stitched together love. “Starts With You” has a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers vibe both in content and sonic qualities. It also includes the fantastically, if albeit likely subconsciously foisted upon the song’s narrator admission that “sad songs make me happy.” “The Luckier You Get” is an anthem that evokes those Springsteen comparisons and has the AA band sounding at its most E Street.
Sad songs are American Aquarium’s stock and trade, but that doesn’t mean the music has to match the material. Jennings brings the best out of the band and the result is a beautifully captured fabric of American rock n’ roll behind one of the most creative and genuine songwriters currently releasing records. Lamentations is a statement on modern life and a testament to those who muddle through it on the daily. It’s also a testament to the continued cementing of Barham’s artistic vision. As the times get rockier, American Aquarium makes the looking glass clearer.