Back in 2016, which now seems an entirely separate existence, we attended a solo performance by American Aquarium front man BJ Barham in Manchester. He had released a solo album, ‘Rockingham’, and was promoting it.
He was performing acoustically but also performed many of the AA back catalogue. We were able to chat after the show and we discussed his tendency to tour in Europe annually without the band. For BJ this was a financial necessity, but also an opportunity for him to perform solo. In April 2017, a whole new band line-up was announced, so maybe all wasn’t well behind the scenes. The reason for the break-up was never made public but the ‘past members’ list grew to 14.
American Aquarium appeared to have imploded and BJ was again left with a decision. Reform or go solo. He chose the former, and it seems that the band have gone from strength to strength with the new members and a record deal with New West Records. They released ‘Things Change’, in 2018 which was applauded by the music press and the fan base who had stuck with BJ and the various incarnations of American Aquarium since the band was formed in 2006.
‘Lamentations’ is the second studio album from the new incarnation, and the first to be produced by Shooter Jennings, who has made his mark on this project.
‘Things Change’ was BJ’s response to the election of President Trump and the effect that this would have upon his blue collar philosophies. It was brave and polarizing, but more importantly it was album that was noted for the depth and mood of the song writing. The general consensus was that this was the best album that they had ever produced.
‘Lamentations’ takes this to the next level. Barham has delivered a set of songs that must rank as the best of his career, and the cohesion extends to the production. Jennings has enhanced the reputation forged with his contribution to the Grammy winning Tanya Tucker album.
American Aquarium have always been a band that saved their best for the road. Solid but not ground breaking in terms of their studio output. That changed with their collaboration with New West and the new album is clearly designed to deliver greater commercial rewards.
They were due to make their Grand Ole Opry debut on the day of the album’s release, but that was another victim of the covid virus.
BJ’s song writing has evolved and his reputation now stands against the best of his peers. The personal input, drawing upon his life experiences, are at the forefront of the project. His regrets and sobriety are covered with transparency. There is also a polish to the project that contrasts with the earlier output of the band. The rawness of the earlier years has been replaced with a stylised, polished, complex sound that will attract a wider audience.
At times, particularly on the anthemic ‘The Luckier You Get’, the ‘Springsteen of the South’ comparisons seem apt.
The combination of Barham’s compositions, a band who clearly shine in a studio environment, and a producer who adds stardust, has delivered an album that surpasses anything that Barham has achieved before.
The opener ‘Me + Mine (Lamentations)’ is almost 7 minutes long and deals with the anger felt at the falsity of the American Dream, especially when your principles are trashed by those with power and influence. The track builds to a crescendo when the band are let loose on an orchestration of thrashing, angry guitar and piano. We guess that those 7 minutes will be extended substantially in a live setting.
The hardcore country fans will revel in the instrumentation, especially the steel guitar that prevails in ‘Starts With You’.
BJ’s positivity shines on ‘The Long Haul’. The ability to bounce back, to persevere, and attain respectability and success through hard work is his motto.
It is rare indeed for a band going into their 9th album to feel on the brink of a breakthrough, but ‘Lamentations’ may just be it. 10 tracks and no fillers. The mark of a great album.