Since American Aquarium’s 2006 debut Antique Hearts, the Raleigh roots rockers have garnered plenty of (deserved) Whiskeytown comparisons. With rollicking E Street-flavored heartland rock like "Mary, Mary" and "Ain't Going to the Bar Tonight," last year’s Dances for the Lonely brought Bruce Springsteen references into the fold. Not that American Aquarium shied away from them, as they took on The Boss for this year’s Raleigh Undercover.
Recorded last November while holed up in Oxford, Miss., Smalltown Hymns—American Aquarium's fourth—won't do much to shake either of those associations, though Hymns has more in common with Nebraska and Heartbreaker than Born to Run and Faithless Street. Frontman B.J. Barham sent The Independent five tracks from the upcoming record, which was produced and engineered by Andrew Ratcliffe (Will Hoge, The Damnwells) and will be the band's second for Last Chance Records.
Though just a taste of the album's eleven tracks, the five songs convey a prevailing mood pretty clearly. The sparse, late-night contemplations are haunted by Zack Brown's keys and Whit Wright's pedal steel, with understated contributions from the rest of the six-piece. Unsurprisingly, Barham's writing continues to focus mostly on his escapades with the fairer sex—with one very noteworthy exception.
"Water in the Well" reads as an open letter to God from a Georgia farmer who contemplates suicide upon losing his family's ancestral farmland—"a hundred years of sweat and blood handed down to me"—to bill collectors. Mandolin and organ work in beautiful harmony atop a softly brushed kit. Barham narrates the patriarch's hope for work outside his native Clarke County and his preacher's offer of the forgiveness of sins through salvation. "I could never forgive myself for failing my family," the farmer insists. It's an absolute revelation for Barham as songwriter and easily my favorite song of this young year.
Otherwise, standout “Reidsville” is Barham’s ode to his old stomping grounds, during which the singer bemoans the fate of the former Carolina tobacco town in plaintive fashion. Quiet strums of his acoustic guitar and hushed background vocals from guest star Cory Branan are all that accompany Barham’s pained meditations. He rues the change in his girl’s eyes and contends that he’d burn down the town to see her smile again. “When it comes my day to die, I want to look God in the eyes and ask him why he gave up on this place,” Barham sings with a twang on the acerbic final verse, concluding bleakly that “It seems like our fate’s already been sealed in Reidsville.”
With Ryan Johnson's eerie electric guitar echoing in the background like an unshakable memory, "Meredith" deals with the sentiments of a similarly stubborn relationship. A brushed snare and lightly jingled tambourine chimes add to the feeling of a dark, desolate country highway as Barham struggles to decide where to place the blame for the couple's failings. Soaring pedal steel licks and keys lead the way for "Hurricane," another tune where the singer examines the scattered aftermath of a relationship, questioning whether he "was a target or was simply in the way."
Over a simple snare beat and cries of steel guitar, Barham juxtaposes his muse with vices from harmless (a cold cup of joe) to consuming (methamphetamine) on “Coffee & Cigarettes,” the most forgettable song of the bunch. With just a watery organ solo to break up the mid-tempo proceedings, the tune never builds, failing to match the addictiveness of its title.
Nevertheless, this early look indicates that Hymns might just please both the American Aquarium's faithful and those who've been turned off in the past by Barham's tendency towards brash, one-sided accounts of his whiskey-fueled exploits.
American Aquarium celebrates the release of Smalltown Hymns with a Saturday, May 1, show at The Pour House. If you can’t wait that long, celebrate the band’s return to town with Wednesday night’s gig at Local 506. The cover is $8, and John Howie Jr. and the Rosewood Bluff open at 9:30 p.m.