By evidence of name alone, American Aquarium never intended to be a mere rock 'n' roll band.
In 2004, when the neophyte songwriter B.J. Barham selected the alliterative handle for his collegiate roots-rock act, he chose audaciously. "I am an American aquarium drinker/I assassin down the avenue," Jeff Tweedy had sung at the start of Wilco's 2002 album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Sure, Wilco nodded to the ghosts of rock and Tweedy's earlier, iconic alt-country act, Uncle Tupelo, but the Chicago group mostly treated those voices as echoed whispers. They favored scattered drums and post-Varse dissonance, staggering pianos and counterintuitive structures. A decade ago, Wilco seemed interested in testing the bounds of rock-band expectation, and their damaged art-rock outlook strangely pushed toward mainstream crossover status. For a few North Carolina kids, it was an impressive but daunting path to trail.
For much of the band's first decade, though, American Aquarium seemed to focus only on the final word of that Wilco gambit—"drinker." As they built a wide network of fans through the South and into the Great Plains, their high-energy, high-ABV mix of country and rock hinged on around-town shit talk and bad-guy anti-romance. Barham badmouthed the girls and caroused with the boys, the band passing the bottle (metaphorical and literal, mind you) around the stage. The music was tight, the presentation loose; American Aquarium could soundtrack Friday night, seven times a week.
Their albums lagged behind the live gig, however, with the general mid-tempo ruckus interrupted by sometimes-mawkish ballads. But the records gradually improved as the band aged toward balance, their stage show softening slightly in the studio. Epitomized by the title of their 2012 LP, Burn. Flicker. Die., though, an implicit, hard-living fatalism remained: Before they might ever become more than that mere rock 'n' roll band and live up to the gumption of their name, American Aquarium were likely to drink, drive or drown themselves to death.
It seems no minor miracle, then, that Wolves exists at all. American Aquarium's sixth studio album, the 10-track set is a wonderfully contemplative and surprisingly complicated one, where the arrival of adulthood allows the six-piece to articulate more than their reactions to booze, brunettes and barrooms with songs that do more than chug or brood. With a finesse they've never possessed, American Aquarium negotiates the paradox of hard shells and soft hearts without sounding callow or coarse. The lyrics sound lived-in, the performances considered. On Wolves, a mere rock 'n' roll band finally moves beyond its own borders.
When American Aquarium was preparing Burn. Flicker. Die., they were, as the name suggests, preparing for their own death. They'd been playing music for the better part of a decade, and the road to sustainability—let alone success—only seemed to get longer. But that record stumbled into a wider audience, and the clubs and paydays began to grow. Rather than cash out—or, as Barham puts it on Wolves' road testimonial, "Old North State," become one of those bands "who walk away just to quit while they're ahead"—they reinvested in themselves. They bought time at one of North Carolina's nicest studios, Asheville's Echo Mountain, and recruited Megafaun's Bradley Cook to produce and Jon Ashley (The Avett Brothers, Dawes) to engineer.
For a band that's already worked with former Drive-By Trucker Jason Isbell, those production credits might seem insignificant. But the sonic palette here is a broad one for American Aquarium. Following a duel between Ryan Johnson's scowling lead guitar and guest Matt Douglas' soulful saxophone, "Family Problems" climaxes into a wall-of-sound din, a thousand tiny collisions echoing the battle in Barham's head. The bold "Man I'm Supposed to Be" teases its simple trot with Krautrock-gone-country accents; extra rhythmic ticks and Whit Wright's gorgeous pedal steel ache into oblivion. "Wichita Falls" is an electrified, break-up shitkicker in the grand American Aquarium tradition, but even its pealing organs and drumming stutters add unexpected nuance. The six-piece is thinking through these songs instead of simply playing through them.
What's more, the band around Barham seems to have emerged from what might have become a perpetual adolescence with their frontman in tow. In the past, the singer's songwriting has lashed out—at himself, at those who have slighted him, at those he has slighted. But Wolves hinges on an admixture of resignation to the past and present and hope for the future, wrought by Barham in lines that question himself just as much as those around him. During "Wichita Falls," for instance, he pleads to an ex he can't find, "Just remember, nothing good ever happens after 3 a.m." That's surprising for a frontman who has forever staked his claim as the life of the party.
To that same end, it might seem surprising that American Aquarium chose to open Wolves by smoldering through the contemplative "Family Problems." But it's a fitting thesis for this moment in the lifespan of both band and frontman. Barham, alcohol-free and married since late last year, addresses a genetic history of alcoholism here and asks for help in an almost-broken baritone: "If you take my hand, I'll let you fix what you can." It's a sober, sobering reflection on getting old enough to know you won't get any younger. A similar sentiment softens the cocksure strut of "Ramblin' Ways," the survivalist rampage of "Old North State" and the defiant posture of "Who Needs a Song"—rock 'n' roll numbers perfectly augmented by a musical, personal and lyrical maturity.
Wolves isn't some wholesale breakthrough. American Aquarium continues to live up to its name in that the references are easy to enumerate, from the War on Drugs-like wash of "Man I'm Supposed to Be" to the Isbell-lifted acoustic soul plea of "End Over End." The voices of Bruce Springsteen, Ryan Adams and, yes, Jeff Tweedy still nest inside that of Barham, and he still has a tendency to oversell even the small stuff.
But make no mistake: Wolves is an absolute breakthrough for this band, suggesting that there's life in the barroom's afterglow and that they needn't continue killing themselves to live. Between the banjo-and-guitar rollick of "Losing Side of Twenty Five" and the compact, redemptive crescendo of the title track, there are songs here that could expand American Aquarium's reputation more quickly than they can by shuffling from city to city, club to club, hangover to hangover. American Aquarium once did its best to ape its alt-country predecessors, and with that accomplished, they struggled to survive on the road. But now they've done better than forever expected, at last crafting a terrific album that sounds like their own new start.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Remain in light"