Live, American Aquarium is a big, roots-rock blunt object, a monolithic, acoustic guitar-based band, vicariously drinking behind the wheel and careening down a North Carolina country road via B.J. Barham's major chord laments. It has its moments, but the band can be as guilty of overplaying as Barham can be of oversinging. On stage, American Aquarium tries to make everything an arena ballad with a Reidsville accent and a punk zest, and Barham sometimes sounds like he's singing in the shower to old Whiskeytown EPs.
But attribute that to an ambition that makes the band feel as though it needs to save every soul in a room with its music. Oddly, it's that same ambition—a grindstone determination to turn Barham's songs into the things that kids depend upon to get over heartbreak and jump back into love—which causes the band's long-in-coming debut LP, Antique Hearts, to work so well. Viola, mandolin, organ, guitars, drums, bass and harmonica finally give Barham's songs leeway and room to breathe, moving from broad-shoulders rock to white-neck soul over 13 tracks.
Accompanied by this capable cast of ensemble (and tempered) players, Barham sounds like he's settling into his own, espousing his empirically derived views on life, love, loss and letting go with the confidence of a mature songwriter. Barham constantly sounds like he's going somewhere, and he casts himself as a peripatetic wanderer, a rolling stone with a guitar and, he hopes, a story. His chief struggle, then, is deciding on his own ultimate destination, and that beatnik indecision is what keeps him alive. On the astonishingly bright "California," he sings, "Two lovers who saw a normal life and drove the other way," only to pine later for a more compelling reunion with his paramour. That quest, met by what sounds like atheism ("Why would I ever start to pray to a God that's always only six feet away?"), points Barham to nihilist territory.
That's simplistic, though: It's the details and the essence—life in a city that "steals his paycheck one drink at a time," the streetlight outside of his window, the liberation of being able to leave his hometown—that offers Barham his salvation. Really, he just knows that, more than any religion, faith or creed, the daily struggle to survive while smiling is something on which we all can, and should, latch.
None of this is perfect, transcendent or revolutionary, but, as every song here asserts, we're only human.
American Aquarium plays Local 506 on Wednesday, April 5 at 10 p.m. with Voxtrot.