Reviews

American Aquarium’s Wolves

AAWolves

American Aquarium’s Wolves

By Brian Rock

American Aquarium follows up their critically acclaimed, Burn, Flicker, Die with their 6th studio release, Wolves. You might think that with the praises of the Americana community still ringing in their ears, this album would strike a tone of triumphant optimism.

You might be wrong.

Wolves strikes a somber tone befitting this barren season. Just look at the titles of the first three tracks: “Family Problems,” “Southern Sadness,” and “Man I’m Supposed to be.” You can tell these guys haven’t let success go to their heads as they still grapple with who they are and where they’re from. Lead singer B.J. Barham’s bourbon blanched baritone is perfectly suited to deliver these soul searching meditations. In “Family Problems,” he sings, “Every day’s an uphill battle, staring down the barrel of the choices that I’ve made.” In “Southern Sadness,” he notes that “There’s a certain kind of despair. It hangs heavy in the air.” And in “Man I’m Supposed to Be,” he confesses, “Nobody ever called me a good man and that’s all right by me.” Clearly he’s not looking to bask in his success or blow sunshine up anyone’s skirt.

But B.J.s brutal honesty goes down a little smoother with the intricately textured rhythms of his bandmates. Incorporating electric guitar, banjo, steel guitar, Hammond organ, sax, and an array of percussion, American Aquarium deliver a richly layered musical landscape that’s part Wilco, but with the gritty edginess of Drive by Truckers.

After contemplating “the choices that I’ve made,” B.J. and company face the consequences of those choices on the albums next three tracks. “Wichita Falls,” “Old North State,” and “Ramblin’ Ways,” all recall the women they’ve left behind for their life on the road. With lyrics like, “I ain’t seen my bed in months but there’s a girl that keeps it warm,” and “If you see her out, tell her that I called and that I’m sitting here alone in Wichita Falls;” you can feel the tension between following their musical dreams and what they have to give up to get it.

But it must be worth all the sacrifice to see your name in lights and live the rock and roll dream, right? Not based on the album’s final tracks. In “Losing Side of Twenty-Five,” B.J. sings, “My parents ask how I’m doing. I hang my head and close my eyes. They say don’t throw your life away, go and get a job that pays; we love you and we know you tried.” OK, so maybe the money isn’t that great, but what about the adoring fans and parties? B.J. answers that in the title track, “Wolves:” “The beautiful women, the sweet amphetamines, I just wish these wolves would get their claws out of me.” So in the end there’s one clear question: why keep doing it? That is exactly the question addressed in the album’s last track, “Who Needs A Song?” Admitting that, “I’ve missed my share of birthdays living in a hotel room,” B.J. and company come to realize that, “The only thing I need right now is home.”

This album is a painfully beautiful dairy of a band’s life on the road. The fact that American Aquarium can turn their homesick tears to musical pearls may ease some of that pain, and I hope they continue to do so for a long time to come. And I hope everyone who has ever ripped an album download without paying or tried to sneak into a show for free will take this album’s message to heart. Because in the end, the answer to the question, “Who Needs a Song?” is US! We need real, heartfelt songs from artists like American Aquarium or else we risk wallowing in a top 40 wasteland forever – and then the wolves will have won.

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