American Aquarium ” Things Change” album review ( New West Records)
It has certainly been a time of change in recent years for American Aquarium’s front man and songwriter BJ Barnham.
Since the band’s last album ‘ Wolves’ was released in the Summer of 2014 he has got sober, got married, become a father, had his old band quit and formed a new one. And of course there’s been a presidential election, the result of which has massively altered the social landscape in the US, with BJ not one to shy away from social commentary as I’m sure you know!
These events all help provide inspiration for this collection of songs, written with what he has described as ( his usual! ) “ raw honesty”. It comes after BJ’s superb 2016 solo album “ Rockingham” ( he writes chronologically every two years) which may have planted the seeds of doubt in many American Aquarium fans’ minds that he would ever record again under the band’s name. Yes, American Aquarium’s lineup has been pretty fluid over the years, 31 members to date apparently, but this is the first time there has been an entirely new line up, and wow they sound fantastic! I love the variety in the tracks’ arrangements, and as well as the core band members there are guest appearances by the likes of John Moreland and Jamie Lin Wilson ( vocals ) and John Fulbright ( on an array of instruments, including clarinet ) who also produced this album. Recorded in Tulsa, Oklahoma, it’s the first of the band’s to come out on a label as opposed to being self-released, another change, and it was funded with the help of fans via a Pledge Music campaign.
Two slow-paced songs dedicated to his daughter and wife ( respectively) bookmark the ten tracks, all solo writes which once again demonstrate BJ’s lyrical talent and emotional vocals. The album’s opening line hits you immediately on both counts. “ She looked out of the window and said the world’s on fire “ he almost screams in order to get our attention. BJ began writing this song ( the band’s current single) the morning after the presidential election that he says “ ripped the country in half”, his fear and anger coming through in the opening verses. But ultimately “ The World is on Fire ” is not about despair or giving up. Finishing it quite a while later, after he discovered he was to become a father, he mentions his concerns about the world his daughter is coming into but even though “ the road is long and we’ve only began the fight”, he concludes “ we must go boldly into the darkness and be the light”. It’s a message of hope that is echoed throughout the album
The perfectly placed album closer “ Till The Final Curtain Falls” is a beautiful and gentle love song, something BJ isn’t renown for yet there are two on this collection ( the lilting 6/8 “ Shadows of You” being the other). See the effect we women can have! As already mentioned it is dedicated to his wife, who he swears he will love until the very end, describing her as his “ lover and a true companion” and “ the only one I can count on to be in my corner”.
Of the remaining tracks two reflect on his new found sobriety, and they’re possibly among my favourites. “ One Day At A Time” ( a common alcoholics anonymous slogan) has a gentle stripped back arrangement which enables its superb lyrics to come to the fore. He writes about what caused his drinking in the first place, it being a crutch to calm his nerves when performing or as he puts it so well “ a chemical reaction of brown liquor and self doubt “ …” guess it comes with the job”. And he admits to sometimes still missing “ the way that high ball glass would kiss my lips”.
“ I Gave Up The Drinking ( Before She Gave Up On Me)” has an entirely different vibe with its country honky tonk arrangement. It’s the true story of the last time he had a drink, August 31st 2014 at the Magnolia Motor Lounge, Fortworth Texas, and once again he thanks his now wife for her part in his transformation. It’s preceded by another track in the same vein sonically, “ Work Conquers All” , the state motto of Oklahoma which BJ says he found so cool he thought it merited a song! I particularly love the fiddle on this one.
The album’s title track sees the writer confessing to past weaknesses and bad mistakes that ended up hurting those who cared about him and were trying to help. He became a shell of who he used to be, but thankfully “ things change, people don’t stay the same” and he credits his wife for coming along and stoking “ the dying embers”.
And of course I must mention the song in which BJ pays tribute the previous American Aquarium band members, “
When We Were Younger Men”. “ We were heading down a dead end road in a car too far gone for fixing” he sings in an opening verse which could equally be interpreted as being about the end of a love affair which in many ways this song is. The band started off with hopes and dreams just as lovers do, life was fun and relatively simple but didn’t stay that way. He hopes that the other band members can, like he does, someday look back with fondness on their time together, before “ we said things that couldn’t be undone”.
Yes, this really is another fantastic collection of songs brilliantly produced ( the CD cleverly including the sound of a record player clicking off half way through to denote the end of side one of the vinyl version) and as usual with BJ’s writing I hear something different with each listen…..thankfully that is something that hasn’t changed!
There’s an incredibly extensive album release tour happening right now in the States, with a few UK dates in the Autumn too which I’m already so excited about!
Further details can of course be found at americanaquarium.com
The World Is On Fire Things Change
Crooked and Straight Work Conquers All
Tough Folks I Gave Up The Drinking
When We Were Younger Men Shadows of You
One Day At A Time Till The Final Curtain Falls