Without shame, Raleigh's American Aquarium wears its influences on its record sleeves: Designed by ex-Whiskeytown drummer Skillet Gilmore, the liner notes for the band's second album, The Bible & the Bottle, thank alt.country compatriots Lucero and Cory Branan. Several tracks feature Caitlin Cary on background vocals, and long-ago Whiskeytown producer Greg Elkins handled the boards and microphones for The Bible & the Bottle. Embrace the inevitable, right?
But on this beyond-promising sophomore effort, American Aquarium stakes its own claim just fine. Mostly stellar arrangements come well-played by a cadre of capable musicians, speaking more to the lushness of Stranger's Almanac than the skeletal firsts of Whiskeytown. American Aquarium's Sarah Mann handles her dual violinist and vocalist roles confidently. And where Whiskeytown's Ryan Adams often focused inward with a sharp eye for his best words, American Aquarium frontman B.J. Barham finds his spark when he looks around and outside: He's at his most endearing when he's the wide-eyed, rural-Carolina boy romanticizing the A train on "Manhattan" or the California firmaments on "Stars and Scars." The former is an album gem, playing Mann's violin and Jeremy Aycock's electric guitar off Jay Shirley's piano and organ lines. The sharp, focused arrangement underscores Barham's refreshingly straightforward lyrics.
But the album stumbles when Barham loses that voice, as on "Tellin' A Lie"—too cocky—and "Clark Ave."—a possible honky-tonk brawl soundtrack. They're not bad songs, but the brash Barham doesn't fit the better, romantic model.
Such sentimental wonderment comes back to bite Barham on the Bones EP, six songs recorded in a straight-to-tape living-room session after The Bible & The Bottle was finished. The EP reads like an open letter to the LP's muse, a post-breakup catharsis more sad than bitter. When Barham sings "I don't think I love you anymore" on the title track, for instance, you know he's lying. "Every time I close my eyes I only see your face/ A memory I just can't erase," he admits a verse later.
One gets the feeling Barham lives his life in search of a song, looking for an experience to fold into lyrics. Life has given him this batch, and—for the most part—he's done such a fickle muse diligent service.
American Aquarium kicks off its summer tour Friday, May 9, at Slim's.