American Aquarium -- Chicamacomico

REVIEW: American Aquarium “Chicamacomico”


American Aquarium — Chicamacomico

Fans of American Aquarium have become inured to songs with devastating messages – BJ Barham wrote that “Them sad songs/Is the only thing that makes me happy,” and fans have adopted that line from 2020’s “Starts With You” as a mantra. However, on the backend of a pandemic that coincided with several tragedies in his own life, Barham still has sad stories to share. His band’s latest offering, Chicamacomico, has Barham realizing that not success, sobriety or even relative stability will stop life from doing its worst.

The title track leads off the album, and it begins with a surprise vacation (Chicamacomico is a former life-saving station in the Outer Banks of Barham’s native North Carolina) which is revealed to be a rough attempt at healing for a couple who’s just been dealt a miscarriage. Barham expresses the confusion and anger any such couple might feel – “I swear I’m gonna lose my mind/If I have to hear about God’s plan one more goddamn time” – while filling in heartbreaking details that won’t be covered in any self-help books – “I never knew hard until I took apart that room that never got used.” If the words don’t break you, the subtle punctuation of Neil Jones’ pedal steel will finish you off.

More tough times follow, and “The First Year” is a country weeper in the grandest tradition. After losing his mother, true grief didn’t set in for Barham until the annual occasions that we tend to take for granted, now forever changed, began to back roll around. Against acoustic guitar and piano, Barham sings of the loss felt most deeply as those special days pass by – “It’s finally here, that time of year when your favorite flowers start to bloom.” And his sadness is magnified by the pain he sees his father suffering – “I watched that mountain of a man/Fall apart when they laid to rest his queen.”

While the material is tough, Barham’s goal has never been to outright crush the listener (well, except for 2012’s Burn. Flicker. Die., a masterclass in emotional destruction). Even his saddest lyrics are often balanced by upbeat country-rock arrangements (this particular incarnation of American Aquarium is together for a second consecutive record, a minor miracle unto itself). And there are songs on Chicamacomico that show hope after the two years that ground most of us down to a nub. “Little Things” is a bouncy country twanger about the kind of moments we unexpectedly got back during the pandemic – in this case, more time with his young family: “I used to be a singer with a family back home/Now I’m just a father and a husband, who knows his way around a microphone.” That shift in perspective goes all the way to the loss his father experienced. “The Hardest Thing,” penned with Hayes Carll, tells of every arduous step taken after losing the one constant in life – “Turn on the house and make the bed/Make sure the dogs get fed.” But the song ends with the slightest glimmer of hope – “The flowers you planted in the Spring/Even though my thumb ain’t green/I think they’re gonna make it.” Like those blooms, father, son and most of the rest of us are gonna make it. That’s how life goes in Barham’s world – lots of sad along the road, but a little bit of OK to make it worth the trip.

Song I Can’t Wait to Hear Live: “All I Needed” – A country rocker about songs as three-minute saviors.

Chicamacomico was produced by Brad Cook, recorded by Gerardo “Jerry” Ordonez, mixed by Alex Farrar and mastered by Pete Lyman. All songs were written by BJ Barham, with co-writing credits going to Carl Anderson, Lori McKenna and Hayes Carll. American Aquarium is BJ Barham (vocals), Shane Boeker (electric and acoustic guitars), Rhett Huffman (Hammond organ, Moog bass, acoustic guitar), Neil Jones (pedal steel, acoustic guitar), Ryan Van Fleet (drums, percussion, acoustic guitar) and Alden Hedges (bass guitar, vocals, acoustic guitar). Additional musicians include Patterson Hood (vocals), Kate Rhudy (vocals), Brad Cook (vocals, bass synths) and Phil Cook (vocals, piano, Wurlitzer, harmonica).

Go here to order Chicamacomico (out June 10):

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