taking a listen

by Ryan Snyder

reviews of local & state music CDs


There’s clearly no want for competitive fire within American Aquarium songwriter and frontman BJ Barham. The criticism he bore over the mild shift from whiskey-fueled, barroom country rock in the band’s first years to the misogynistic Springsteen filching on Dances With the Lonely prompted yet another shift on American Aquarium’s latest release, Smalltown Hymns. Trouble is, he doesn’t easily assimilate into the blue-collar troubadour role he assumes on Hymns quite as easily. The album is replete with delicately crafted country melody, with tasteful support through Whit Wright’s pedal steel and Zack Brown’s piano, while Barham takes on the guise of a Killers and Stars-era Patterson Hood, often burnishing his Southern drawl to an even deeper shine. He almost sounds like a caricature of a downtrodden rural troubadour at times. His overly dramatic ode to home “Reidsville” sounds too parodical to be sincere, with overwrought tenses on the word “God” that would put the red in Elton John’s cheeks. He’s admitted that many of the themes within are tried-and-true and sought to deliver them from a fresh perspective, but the woman-as-storm metaphor on opener “Hurricane” is so tread upon that doing so is a nearly impossible task. He does succeed in that vein on “Meredith” amidst carefully punctuated piano and an ambient swirl of faint electric guitar. His relationship conquests and failures are well documented in previous albums, but this is one of the few instances where he comes across as an earnest guy deserving of another chance. There are still moments where you’ll find the BJ Barham of The Bible and the Bottle, and that’s where you’ll find the album’s heart and soul. “Hard to Quit” shows an honest, forthright songwriter who doesn’t pretend to be immersed in abstruse metaphor, while he revisits the rollick-y good time sensibilities of old on “Nothing to Lose.” Barham can write a song, no doubt about it and on stage he’s a force to be reckoned with, but Smalltown Hymns shows a band trying to please someone else rather than themselves.

American Aquarium will play the Garage on Tuesday, June 1 and the Blind Tiger on Wednesday, June 2.