REVIEW: BJ Barham – ‘Rockingham’

RockinghamCOVERJPG-758x758American Aquarium front man, founder and lead singer BJ Barham has released his first solo album ‘Rockingham’ on At The Helm Records.

He has collaborated once again with long-time American Aquarium producer Brad Cook but has lost the electric guitar sound that typified much of the last band album ‘Wolves’.

This time we have an introspective, part-autobiographical, acoustic batch of songs that Barham didn’t consider appropriate for the full band.

We had the opportunity to chat to BJ on his recent UK mini-tour that showcases this new material, and he explained the background to the new project.

He said that the band were in Belgium when the Paris attacks occurred. The decision was made to move them across to The Netherlands and he found himself holed up in a hotel room for a couple of days whilst the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks unfolded. He decided to use the time to compose a bunch of new songs, eight of which appear on this album.

He accepts that he struggles to write joyful songs and these were penned whilst he was particularly pining for home. The result therefore is a deeply personal group of songs about BJ’s home life.

Just don’t expect happy!

Home to BJ was Reidsville North Carolina. He currently lives in Raleigh, NC but spends much of his time on the road. He stated to us that he performs in excess of 300 gigs a year, some with his band, and some solo with a guitar and his wife on the merch stand.

Early American Aquarium output often featured stripped back, mainly acoustic songs with gentle piano backing and this is what we have here.

The album opens with ‘American Tobacco Company’ which tells the story of his father’s career working in a tedious job overseeing the production of cigarettes. He did this job for 42 years and the song describes the fact that this is hardly the ‘American Dream’. It has a mid-tempo drum beat with Whit Wright’s steel guitar giving it an authentic country feel.

To emphasise the personal side to the songs on this album, the sleeve photographs all appear to be from the Barham family album.

‘Madeline’ is Barham’s father-daughter chat song although he doesn’t currently have a daughter. Phil Cook’s piano playing is given ample exposure in the mix and adds plenty to a track which is a highlight on the album.

It’s also a song that goes its natural distance. Many of BJ’s songs stop very suddenly just when another chorus would have been welcome.

Barham states that he excels writing songs about life’s downers although his own description of that is not quite as family friendly! We certainly have a few contenders in this category.

‘Unfortunate Kind’ is Barham and a guitar. Nothing else. It is as raw and emotive as any song could be that describes the pain of being left alone, after a partnership lasting 39 years is broken by the death of your soul mate. You can hear the emotion in Barham’s delivery. It’s a subject matter that’s been covered numerous times previously by country music performers but he does it well.

The mood lightens with ‘O’lover’. This merely tells the tale of a farmer with failed crops and an inability to feed his family who decides to carry out an armed robbery.

“You can’t call yourself a farmer just because you plant a seed you must bargain with the dirt your hands must blister they must bleed”. We are assuming that the autobiographical nature of the album should not be taken too literally!

We look on with envy when a songwriter can construct a song around the name of his home town. ‘Reidsville’ has a name that is made for a country song. This is again a story of hope that turns to dust, and it is a song that creeps up on you with repeated listening just as the good ones do.

The collection ends with ‘Water In The Well’ which opens with “Dear heavenly father what have I done? I used to have it all and now I’m left with none. The great state of Georgia took the farm away Because of the bills I could not pay.”

The subject matter may be bleak but good country songs are not always intended to provide levity. These are songs that BJ feels that he was meant to sing. They will provide a cornerstone of his one man show and they are his way of showing a little of his private persona.

It’s not an album to brighten your day but it is an album that may enhance it. Sometimes it’s good to delve outside of your comfort zone.

We fully expect American Aquarium fans to enjoy a return to BJ Barham’s traditional country roots but we encourage non-AA fans to check this out. It has a lasting and sincere quality.