By Jason Henry
June 2, 2018
Change is constant. Always has been. American Aquarium’s lead singer BJ Barham embodies it. He gave up partying a few years back. He lives on the road some 300 days a year singing his songs with an ever-changing landscape and cast of characters. He got married a few years ago, on the stage at the Lincoln Theatre in Raleigh, NC and just recently welcomed a daughter into the world. And, on top of all that, he recently had to replace his entire band of 11 years and quickly refit a new ensemble to get into the Tulsa, Oklahoma studio to record Things Change (their seventh studio album) under the watchful eye of Oklahoma singer-songwriter John Fullbright.
The result of this upheaval and joy is American Aquarium’s best work to date. It is their first release since Wolves in 2015 and their first as part of the New West label. The perspective gained by the narrator in each of these songs from the new album offers listeners a hard truth about living – tough times don’t last, tough people do. This album echoes that ten times over and feels like a direct extension of his solo album Rockingham released last year. Barham wrote that album in a Belgian hotel right after the Bataclan club bombing in Paris. That album too captured stories of how things change – sometimes in the blink of an eye and sometimes over the course of many years (as in the case of the American Tobacco Company which shuttered its doors in the mid-90s after decades in business in his hometown of Reidsville, NC). This new album refocuses that same energy on the change experienced in American and global politics as a result of the US presidential election on November 9, 2016. Barham and his wife embarked on an ambitious US tour, playing all contiguous 48 states in 59 days, and listening to everyone along the way. According to a recent interview he did with Rolling Stone his purpose was to understand why people voted the way they had. What was it that changed and where were are we headed. He may not have found the answers, but the stories heard, and perspective gained from them prove invaluable contributions to his songwriting.
Perseverance, hard work, toughness, companionship, and reconciliation are a few other themes that run steady throughout this album. Stories of days gone by and friendships lost as in “When We Were Younger Men” hit close to home while still reminiscing about the joys of sharing the late, great Tom Petty’s music on the radio. Barham’s dad may have taught him the right way to live but he also anticipated the unpredictability of life as in the “Crooked + Straight.” As the song says “you have to saddle up and see it through” to get where you are going. The standout track on the album is “Work Conquers All” which is also the Oklahoma state motto and the phrase itself dates back 2000 years to the writings of the Roman poet Virgil. The narrator’s desire to find his own voice and a better way of life seem best suited with the people and the work ethic in the Sooner state.
And all that talk about the lyrics and themes without properly introducing his new bandmates and the new sound – lead guitarist Shane Boeker, drummer Joey Bybee, bassist Ben Hussey, and pedal-steel guitarist Adam Kurtz. Overall, the musicianship is tighter than on previous records. That’s not to take away from Barham’s previous bandmates. The sound now is more in line with red dirt country from Oklahoma and Texas than it was previously. It hints at that classic country from the ‘80s. The driving pace of the drums and bass guitar keep the album’s heartbeat true even while he is telling another personal tale or one from another’s perspective that he too shares. The pedal steel’s high and lonesome sound is perfectly suited for Barham’s stories and drawl. Add in lead guitar and a little bit of fiddle and these boys will have the honkytonks and icehouses across the Midwest (and beyond) talking about this tour and album even after the boys are long gone down that dusty trail.