2015 just might be the year of American Aquarium, or that’s at least the popular sentiment being kicked around in certain circles. If this prophesy eventually comes true, it would be against the odds and conventional wisdom. Bands on their eighth album and in their eighth year of existence are rarely in a position to break out. It doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen, but in most cases if it was going to happen, it would have happened already. But this reality in itself is some of the red meat that fuels what Bandsintown named the “Most Active Act” in 2014 as a result of American Aquarium’s incessant touring and tireless, headlong pursuit of making it, and making it on their own terms.
American Aquarium is one of the easiest bands to root for as a fan of independent music. They work hard, are brutally honest and earnest in their songwriting, and bleed their hearts out on stage every night. This is a blue collar band if there ever was one, barreling down the road to play for barely enough money to get them to the next gig, blindly believing that the payoff is somewhere down the line, while living in a reality where they once watched Florida Georgia Line open for them on the fast track to the arena circuit, while they’re still stuck worrying about getting their van stolen.
But just maybe 2015 is the year that all changes, and the impetus for that change amongst theorists has been this new album, Wolves. Written and recorded after a long hiatus between releases, American Aquarium took their time with this one, letting the songs maturate, and allowing a stylistic shift in their sound to emerge; something that would hopefully get them over that hump to becoming a self-sustaining band capable of supporting themselves and potential families. Their Jason Isbell-produced and critically-acclaimed 2012 album Burn.Flicker.Die had already given them a decent boost, and now it was time to finish the job.
Wolves finds American Aquarium dedicated to a distinctly different sound and approach to their music, while still broaching familiar subjects in the lyricism handled by singer, guitar player, and frontman BJ Barham. Unless you’ve been to an American Aquarium show lately, the shift may feel pretty remarkable to you, if not shocking.
Where American Aquarium built their sound on is this Southern rock, heavy and rootsy roar with a lot of rawness and emotion expelled in their music unfettered—or at least this would be the best way to describe Burn.Flicker. Die—Wolves is an entirely different vibe. The music is stylized and quite compositional-based, with unintuitive chord changes catching your ear off guard in certain songs, choreographed rhythm parts, especially compared to most country rock bands, and musicianship that in many of the songs eschews overdriven power chords to instill a delicate complexity to the music through fairly intricate arrangement.
It takes only a few seconds into the first song “Family Problems,” and the almost prog rock bass line lifting out of the shadows to demand your attention, that you appreciate this effort isn’t going to be entirely as expected. There’s not a lot of groove in this album. Most songs are articulated and texturized. Adding to the unexpectedness of the sound is BJ Barham’s hushed singing voice compared to his more familiar aggressive singing of years past. American Aquarium 8.0 is most certainly a different animal, and keeps you on your toes.
But the question is if any of these stylistic changes are effective. Time will tell, but for this listener, though the overall effort has to be considered more positive than negative, the music just feels a little over-thought, a little over-arranged, with little room for the songs to freely breathe, and in the end the album feels hampered by the production. Yes we can finally hear that bass guitar that is so often buried in the mix, but do we really want to hear it? Isn’t it best if it blends into the background, and doesn’t distract from what is very much a lyric-driven band?
Something else dogging this recording is how BJ Barham’s voice is cast nearly the entire time with this faraway feel. Wolves is very much a live, organic effort, and that remains one of the album’s strong points. However once again we’re hearing an album presented with less than ideal clarity under the short-sighted theory that things sound better if they sound just a bit scratchy like all of those old records. I would have preferred Barham’s voice dried out a bit, and because he spends so much time singing in these hushed tones, he’s missing the sweet spot in his voice in hopes of capturing a more artistic feel to the music.
As mentioned before, American Aquarium’s changes seem mostly confined to the sonic realm, and the words are what we’ve come to expect from American Aquarium—brutally honest assessments of life as struggling musicians, constantly filled with self-doubt and guilt emanating from the home front, and the unfortunate results of losing your sense of youth by throwing yourself headlong towards a dream. But when this same theme comes up song after song, you wonder if American Aquarium is talking a little too much shop, and not singing about things most listeners can relate to more universally. Certainly the first rule of songwriting is to write what you know about, but maybe the van life has seeped a little too much into the Aquarium psyche.
The exceptions to these above concerns is arguably when Wolves really shines. “Wichita Falls” is a beast a lot more indicative of past American Aquarium efforts, with a guitar-driven groove, BJ Barham singing from his gut through a clearer signal, with the sharp edges of a growl adding exclamation points to his proclamations of heartbreak, and bullets beside his testimony of bad luck. “Old North State” also finds an excellent groove, even if I’d prefer to hear Barham singing with more volume, from his lungs and not his throat, and in a higher register where the pain in his voice is more evident. The “Wolves” title track is also one of the standouts of the effort.
And even if I’d second guess the music decisions on songs like “Southern Sadness” and “Losing Side of 25,” these are excellently-written compositions on their own that are worth listening to, even if the musical approach is a little out of your wheelhouse. And no, those concerns aren’t just coming from a country music critic, or someone who fell in love with American Aquarium’s previous approach and is wary of change. It’s more about finding the sweet spot of the American Aquarium sound, and sticking a little closer to that, even if you want to indulge in a little more sonic exploration.
Wolves is a solid album, and some of the issues enumerated here might be the very things that eventually bestow American Aquarium the wider audience they’ve worked so hard for and deserve. Wolves takes some chances, and tries some different things, and you certainly can’t fault them for that. It will be interesting to sit back and see how 2015 receives this bold and daring effort.
1 1/4 of 2 Guns Up.
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