“Slappers” fits Raleigh’s Aquarium like familiar blue jeans on surprise covers album

Courtesy of Google Images

While it’s been awhile since I can say I’ve truly experienced a “hootenany”, American Aquarium’s new covers album “Slappers, Bangers & Certified Twangers, Volume 1” gets pretty close to the experience during these hootenany-less pandemic times.

The genesis behind the record was simple for the North Carolina-area group: record odes to what they felt was some of the best of 90’s country music and have a lot of fun in the studio doing it. The final product includes covers of artists like Sammy Kershaw, Joe Diffie, Trisha Yearwood and Sawyer Brown, re-imagined through the lens of AA lead man BJ Barham’s sharp edged, glassy growl.

This album was also a learning experience for me as these were never songs I heard growing up. As a child of the 90’s era, most new country music of that time wasn’t something my parents or contemporaries had on the radio. The few peeks I had over the years also just never appealed to me and seemed canned in that “Nashville Factory” sound.

But it’s kind of funny how a slightly different interpretation of a creation’s bones can quickly change your mind. American Aquarium slays these tracks (according to my ears) because: 1. This is a very talented band you should be listening to if you aren’t, and 2. Their genuine joy to perform these songs is next level.

It’s like the difference between working and having a job you love. Take “I Try to Think About Elvis” (a “Johnny B. Goode” raveup at its finest) or “John Deere Green”, which has as much redneck charm as the song’s lovestruck painting protagonist. There’s no phoning it in for the check here. This is for sheer enjoyment of the material.

“Slappers” also has a vibe similar to Todd Snider’s 2016 “Eastside Bulldog” LP. It’s a little ramshackle, bit twangy, but has so much love baked into its metaphorical crust that any misstep just makes for a perfect mistake.

And you can’t do much better than that.

Courtesy of Google Images

Barham Brings Southern Gothic Americana To Solo Standout “Rockingham”

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The phrase “Southern Gothic Americana” may be the widest set of metaphorical body parts I’ve ever dug up and Frankenstein’d together in attempting to describe one album’s genre of music. It also may be one of the more unusual terms I’ve ever put in print here on OTBEOTB, but I promise it’ll all make sense in just a matter of a few paragraphs.

When I think of a phrase like this and attempt to paint a picture of it…. the first word I think of is stark. Plain grass and backwoods framed houses in towns whose names are just as quickly noted as they are forgotten by travelers passing those familiar green road signs dotting the rustic landscape. Unassuming places to the casual observer, but beneath the surface lingers a thousand stories of tragedy, heartbreak, birth, death, pride and a blue collar struggle that’s run on longer than the roads can ever hope to stretch.

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The closest musical elder to that portrait is Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, an album originally intended for Springsteen and his E Street Band but eventually reimagined as the stripped down lo-fi cast of working class lovers and losers it began as in the demo phase. Nebraska illuminated Springsteen’s still growing songwriting during one of his most prolific periods of musical history by not illuminating him at all. The words and stories remained, but gone were the layers of chunky guitars, Roy Bittan’s airy flow of piano, and most any traces of that trademark Asbury Park anthem-seeking. Instead, the album was a densely knit fog of shattered souls, uncertain futures and depressions laid bare to the world beneath a set of window panes as dingy as the album’s cover.

It’s a dark listen that remains one of Springsteen’s most underrated, yet certainly is one of the heaviest to emotionally journey through.

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I found myself having many of these Nebraska reflections while listening to BJ Barham’s similarly toned upcoming August 19th solo release Rockingham. The Pledgemusic-funded project also finds Barham (like Springsteen) momentarily breaking away from his band American Aquarium in order to release a small set of songs that made the most sense stripped right down to the bones.

The end result is a cross somewhere between Springsteen, Woody Guthrie and Kris Kristofferson. Barham is the essential “pearl snap poet with bad tattoos” (as he once coined himself in the AA song “St. Mary’s”) who’s gruff, ragged around the edges vocals hold inside them one of the more underrated storytellers of this generation.

Barham is very Guthrie-like in the way he can embody the Dust Bowl farmer with no way out on the dirge-like “Water In The Well”, the real life story of his grandfather on “American Tobacco Company”, or the Bonnie & Clyde pushed to the brink in “O’ Lover”. It’s not just that he can tell the story of the common man, he can make you feel every breath of his characters. Whether their stories happen to be real, or just well-crafted fiction.

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Regardless you grasp every straw of that emotion in the desperate sadness of a husband meeting/losing his wife in “Unfortunate Kind”, the father entrusting his every bit of wisdom on an often troubled world to a newly born daughter on “Madeline”, or in the embodiment of simple Southern life on the rootsy title track. Barham expresses a tender respect for his North Carolinian background all across this record actually, but never resorts to the kind of chest-thumping, overcompensating, flag waving, tractor driving stereotypes that modern mainstream country music has bogarted the hell out of in recent years.

Instead, he paints us a bit of that image I attempted to sketch for you earlier. Like every note was carefully built with his own two hands. Not by using the idea of women in tight jeans or Red Solo Cups as a centerpiece (I’ve got my eye on you Toby Keith), but by just relaying to the listener the often harsh or dirt poor realities of life in the small town South. And just like any average life, it’s a rollercoaster. Many of the endings might not be happy, but in the end you might still just come away proud of where you’re from simply by surviving.

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Rockingham shows off an all-too-brief but strongly knit nucleus of songs for Barham. Rarely do they need more than just his voice, spare acoustic guitar strums and fills here and there of instruments like piano, percussion, banjo and harmonica. And while his work can be just as soulfully raw with AA, it’s nice to see Barham step to the side for just a moment to show off how strong his solo skills are as well.

In either formation he proves extremely captivating, and when paired with a novelist’s sense for lyricisms it’s impossible to not be stopped by just the simple need to listen. And while I may throw out plenty of comparisons to other musicians, at the end of the day Barham is an artist unique unto himself.

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For everything Ryan Adams has almost hatefully thrown away about his Southern heritage, BJ Barham has embraced with a full-throated authenticity that few others are so gracefully capable of. And it’s not because they can’t write it.

Barham just sings it with a singular, steely-eyed conviction that makes me believe every word of every note, each and every time I hear it. And Rockingham is yet another perfect echo of all that Southern Gothic Americana sweat and blood.

See? Told you it would make sense.

First Thoughts, American Aquarium “Wolves”

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I’ll tell you something, we may only be about a month into 2015 so far, but I’m already noticing just how hard the Southern born artists are throwing down the musical gauntlet this year. This week alone has seen an excellent release from Georgia/Virginia hybrid The Lone Bellow, a recent return to form from Texan Ryan Bingham (that I’ll be talking about soon), as well as an early preview stream of a weathered heart-stopper of a record from Georgia’s Butch Walker.

And if that wasn’t enough, today we have the Wall Street Journal (of all unlikely places) streaming the upcoming February 3rd release from North Carolina’s own American Aquarium. The record (entitled Wolves) is the band’s 8th studio release since 2006, and finds the group in their next chapter following the brilliant resurrection from the ashes of musical frustration that was 2012’s Burn. Flicker. Die. And indeed Wolves really does feel like a succession from one stage of life to the next, even if the band didn’t end up giving in and breaking up as initially planned.

For one thing, while Burn felt like the take no prisoners white hot glow of a band prepared to lay all it’s guns on the table with a snarl instead of a whimper, Wolves feels much more self-assured within it’s own stability. Buoyed by new found life as a band, an overwhelmingly successful fan-funded album project and lead man BJ Barham’s impending marriage/sobriety, that same cynical edge and dusty traveler’s desire remains hard wired into American Aquarium’s DNA. But along with it is a sort of survivalist’s perspective; an acknowledgement of the hard roads and back streets it took to succeed, the dead ends that nearly ruined it all and when all is said and done, the good that made the journey getting here worthwhile.

Barham himself has referred to this album as a “huge departure”, and lyrically it’s easy to see why. Songs like Family Problems and Losing Side of 25 still seek out the familiar anxieties and despair within the shadows of age and addiction, but this time around there are flickers of a silver lining. Those flickers become steady beams on Man I’m Supposed To Be and Who Needs a Song, which have to arguably be two of the most sweetly intended love songs this band has ever created.

The darkness and the drifting still exists within the marrow of the songwriting, but with Wolves the overarching feeling is…. that isn’t all there is anymore. That plunge into bitter darkness, night after night spent with alcohol in seedy bars and the grind of hotel room after hotel room on the road…. life has changed with a certainty towards the better. A reassuring hand, a relationship to build, that knowledge that somehow, imperfect as it may be there is a way out from under even the worst that life has offered.

Frankly, BJ Barham and American Aquarium sound as happy and as uplifted as they’ve ever been. Of course as with most great alt-country bands that dose of happy still comes with a hearty layer of eloquent self-deprecation, but it’s a suit that fits them better than others who faded once the alcohol and amphetamines did.

Either way, Wolves stands as testament to the type of pedal steel-laced, road worn Springsteen-esque storytelling people should refer to when they think of what true country music is. It’s damaged, intelligent, and it draws in the listener with it’s sheer power of passion…. instead of tractors and drunken frat girls. Lookin’ at you over there Kenny Chesney/Florida Georgia Line.

Grade: 9/10

Music of the Day 2….

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In this morning’s installment of music that’s currently tickling it’s way around my ear canal (that sounded… way better in my head), we have American Aquarium and their just-released second single “Man I’m Supposed To Be”. Off of their upcoming February LP “Wolves”, “Man” follows up the rollicking alt-country rock of the title track with a much more subdued, pedal steel-filled warmth that comes off as a real soul stirrer of a song.

American Aquarium has always managed to thrive behind a mixture of whiskey sours, sharp edged guitars and lead man BJ Barham’s steel-eyed sad bastardly vocal rasp. Much of the same still exists in the landscape of this song, but it goes down sweet instead of bitter as more of a… realistic love song if you will. Barham sings of the people he’ll never quite be (“got the heart but no technique”), yet acknowledges what he feels he is as a singer (“never first never last just somewhere in between”). The clincher line of ” just as long as you call me your man… that’s the only man I ever wanna be” really sends “Man I’m Supposed To Be” home as not only as great music, but something that’s honestly relatable too.

It gives me those little shivers of musical fission every time, and I hope it does the same for you. Listen below:

http://www.countryweekly.com/music/exclusive-american-aquarium-premieres-man-im-supposed-be

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