Maintaining a blue collar edge to the music, and a firm grasp on the perspectives and struggles of common people is how BJ Barham has kept American Aquarium credible and current for going on 17 years now. The content and style of the songs may shift slightly, and that’s the case for their latest record Chicamacomico. But that everyman, hard working approach never wavers.
After all, you try to fit a six syllable tongue twister of an album name (pronounced chi-ka-ma-COM-i-co) into a title track. It’s about as arduous as working a 12-hour swing shift at the sprocket factory with only 20 minutes for lunch. Then wait until you discover what the song is actually about at the conclusion of the second verse. It rips your heart out and stomps on it like all the best AA songs do.
Utilizing Brad Cook as producer who also worked on BJ Barham’s stripped-down 2016 solo record Rockingham, this new album delivers on the promise of being a bit more sedate than we’ve seen and heard from American Aquarium recently. The chest-pounding and assured “The Luckier You Get” from the band’s last album has since become one of their signature songs. They’ve also found lucrative ground with songs of lost youth and regret like “The Losing Side of 25.”
But appropriate to the past couple of years, death and pondering mortality create the centerpiece of Chicamacomico, even though it’s named after a former life-saving station located on the Outer Backs of Barham’s native North Carolina.
You could be deceived by the album’s debut single “All I Needed,” which is this breezy road song, not really indicative of the rest of the record, or even really American Aquarium. The second track released “Wildfire” has a bit of an unusual introduction, but then settles into being one of the more country songs on the record, inspired a bit by Johnny Cash and telling a simple love story.
The balance of Chicamacomico is significantly more involved, exploring the initial to intermediate stages of grief and loss from a host of perspectives, with songs that begin with BJ Barham and his acoustic guitar, and then build out tastefully. It’s not a BJ solo record, but it’s as close as you will get under the American Aquarium name, with writing that doesn’t challenge the audience too much like some Americana that ends up veering into the obscure, but still gives you ample things to discover beneath the surface.
“The First Year” highlights how it’s that first round of holidays that cut the hardest after a passing. “Waking Up the Echoes” winds through the thoughts we all have when someone we know chooses to end it all on their terms, which seems to happen so often these days. “The Hardest Thing” is about losing someone in the twilight of life, when many years of two all of a sudden become one.
There are also songs that show BJ’s continued maturity. Gone are the days of rhyming words with Adderall, and a pre-sobriety Jason Isbell in the producer chair telling them to crank the guitars even louder on the album Burn. Flicker. Die. “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,” Barham sings in the song “Little Things.”
But it’s the songs of loss that will ultimately define this entry into the American Aquarium catalog, tracking tragedy from the cradle to the grave. And maybe that’s what we need right now. There have been plenty of snarly and hard-edge country rock American Aquarium songs in the past, with BJ up there on the stage wielding his red acoustic guitar like a battle ax and making wild faces. There may be plenty more of that in the future.
But right now, loss is all around, and like all great artists who become reflections of their time, BJ Barham senses this pain among the greater populous, combines it with his own experience losing his own mother on New Year’s Eve, and speaks to the moment on Chicamacomico.
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