I’ve been lucky. I’ve had an advance of the new American Aquarium album, Lamentations via New West Records for a little bit now. Lucky also because I’ve had plenty of time to deep dive into every nook and cranny. To really think about and consider what I’ve heard over and over. Often, as reviewers we don’t have a lot of time to really analyze or even really enjoy a release enough as we’d like before meeting that impending deadline. That’s not to say, that we don’t give every album it’s due. It’s just a fact that often an opinion or prerogative can change over repeated listens. Often times an interpretation or perception can evolve that may differ from an initial consideration. Every now and then though, an album comes along that grabs a hold of you from the first listen, and leaves absolutely no doubt of its impact. American Aquarium have delivered just that with Lamentations.
I was able to sit down with American Aquarium leader BJ Barham for an interview (https://americanahighways.org/2019/08/19/interview-bj-barham ) last August. This was before the band hit the studio for the recording of this new album, and as luck would have it, provided a behind the curtains glimpse into Barham’s writing process, and the collaborative efforts that would lead to these songs and album. During our talk, Barham indicated he’d be playing a new song later that evening, and it led to some unexpected conversation. At the time, Barham indicated he had four songs completed, and about them said:
It’s one of those things that these songs are still in their infancy. They’re still just these three chord folk songs. The boys haven’t put the meat on them yet. So many of my songs change once the boys get a hold of them. They turn these folk songs into ROCK songs, loud bombastic things (laughs), and I know they had such humble beginnings, those three chord folk songs (laughs).
Later that night Barham played “The Day I Learned To Lie To You,” and true to his word, when I compare that live version to the version represented here, the benefit of the band collaboration couldn’t be more apparent. Huffman’s piano alone adds so much depth. During our interview, Barham continued on the subject of collaborating:
Very rarely do I come with one like, “this is gonna be our huge rock song!” (laughs). It’s always, “here’s another finger picked diddy,” and the boys are like, how about we speed it up, or how about we try this, or add this big guitar part. I love the collaborative effort of taking something extremely fetal and skeletal and then having other people take something very, very dear to me, something that means more to me than say, 90% of things in this world; my songs, and having someone come in and help develop them. Come in and say, this would sound better. That’s a fun thing to do. It’s frustrating sometimes, but for the most part it’s extremely rewarding watching someone come in and take your precious idea and make it better. That’s a cool feeling.
Which leads us to the secret weapon on Lamentations, its producer, one Shooter Jennings. Obviously it’s crucial that a band has moxie to begin with. But even with the best material, there’s a chance they won’t connect properly with the listener without the right producer. With Jennings behind the console, Barham has dealt himelf a hot hand. Jennings and co-producer Brandi Carlisle just helped land Tanya Tucker a Grammy last year with the brillant, While I’m Livin’. I wouldn’t be surprised to see that trend continue with Lamentations. The album is the most polished of their career, and in the opinion of this writer, also absolutely their best. American Aquarium has seen multiple line changes over the years and subsequent albums. The current line-up, in addition to Barham includes: Shane Boeker on guitar, Rhett Huffman on keys, Neil Jones on pedal steel, Alden Hedges on bass and drummer Ryan Van Fleet. Together, they’re a band that is on fire. They’re trying new things and growing into a really cohesive force to be reckoned with. American Aquarium is one of the best sounding live bands out there. Between Barham, the band and Jennings, they’re now one of the best sounding bands in the studio as well. Watch out 400 Unit, this competition is getting fierce.
Lamentations is one of those special albums that begins momentous, and never lets up. Kicking off with the turbulent and brooding “Me + Mine (Lamentations)”, Barham immediately delivers what I think is the best song of his career. With the song, Barham convincingly captures the anger and disappointment of someone with an alternate view than his own, yet does so with unexpected respect and even a sympathetic assay. ‘Neither the Left or the right are going to fight for those in between…’The song’s outro is lush and grand, adding a dramatic flourish to and already memorable start. The album alternates between these raw, personal tracks, the already mentioned, confessional “The Day I Learned To Lie To You”, the hope of a “Better South,” and the absolute upending punch to the feels that is “Six Years Come September.” Barham and band also deliver plenty of momentum via uptempo, destined to be crowd favorite and singalong rockers like, “Before The Dogwoods Bloom,” The Luckier You Get,” and the triumph and joy of “The Long Haul.” All together, Lamentations provides a brilliant juxtaposition and a snapshot of a band that whether they’re live or in the studio is firing on all cylinders, and they know it.
For these times, Barham is a poet for the common person. For all the working people, for all of us willing to listen, regardless of who is deemed essential or not. His approach to songwriting is sincere, forthright and true, and because of it, his songs resonate deeply with many, myself definitely included. Barham has been referred to as the Southern Springsteen. Like the Boss, his songs reflect things that surround him, that inspired, molded, and matured him. Things that perhaps perplexed and even the things that pissed him off. Barham’s an intense guy. On Lamentations his focus and execution is laser sharp. 10 songs, 46 minutes. Meet your favorite album of 2020. http://www.americanaquarium.com
10 tracks and 46 minutes