In the lush tobacco fields of North Carolina where BJ Barham was raised, people work hard. Families stay nearby, toiling and growing together. BJ loves those farms and his tiny Reidsville hometown, but he had to run off and start American Aquarium, a band now beloved by thousands.
BJ couldn’t stay. But he couldn’t really leave, either: he’s still singing about the lessons, stories, and lives that define rural America––and him. “I moved to the big city to go to college and fell in love with music,” BJ says. “But half the songs on our record are about small towns––little pieces of my childhood. I’ve had moments where it turns out a piece of broken English my father repeated twice a week is the most accurate way to say something. So I put it in a song.”
American Aquarium’s seventh studio album Things Change offers the band’s finest collection of folk-infused Southern rock-and-roll to date. Stacked with BJ’s signature storytelling––always deeply personal but also instantly relatable––the record questions and curses current events, shares one man’s intimate evolution, and leaves listeners with a priceless gift: hope.
“In my early 20s, I was not as hopeful,” BJ says. “Now, as I’m getting ready to become a father, I think I have to be hopeful––especially with the situation our country is in now. For her sake, I have to be positive.” He pauses. “Her” is his daughter, due in the spring of 2018. BJ adds, “Being self-aware has always been a blessing and a curse. But that’s what’s always made my songwriting relatable to people. I don’t hold back. I’m almost too honest.”
BJ’s candor has fueled American Aquarium’s runaway appeal, visible most clearly in consistently sold-out shows across the country and throughout Europe – between 200 and 250 dates a year. Much has changed for the band and BJ since their acclaimed last effort, Wolves. In 2017, every American Aquarium member save BJ quit the group. American Aquarium has featured about 30 players since BJ founded the outfit in 2006, and while each member has left indelible marks, the band has always been anchored by the literary songs and sometimes roaring, sometimes whispering, drawl of BJ Barham. BJ’s personal life also underwent seismic shifts: He got sober. He got married. Soon, he’ll be a dad.
Featuring a new band lineup that includes Shane Boeker on lead guitar, drummer Joey Bybee, bassist Ben Hussey, and Adam Kurtz on pedal steel and electric guitar, as well as a reinvigorated frontman in BJ, Things Change is American Aquarium’s first release on a label after selling thousands of records on their own. “As an artist, your goal is for the newest thing you do to be better than the last. You’re slowly whittling away the bullshit to try and get to the truth,” BJ says. “With this album, I learned how to cut some of that fat so that it’s just truth. It’s our best record.” Recorded at 3CG Records in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Things Change was produced by Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter John Fulbright and features cameos from Americana standouts including John Moreland and Jamie Lin Wilson.
ADIOS is Cory Branan’s death record. Not the cheeriest of openings, but like all of Branan’s mercurial work, it’s probably not what you think. As funny and defiant as it is touching and sad, this self-dubbed “loser’s survival kit” doesn’t spare its subjects or the listener.
Not even Branan’s deceased father is let off the hook. In the tender homage “The Vow” he drolly cites his father’s favorite banality “that’s what you get for thinking” as “probably not the best lesson for kids.” For most songwriters that would be the punchline but Branan pushes through words and, in his father’s actions, finds a kind of “genius in the effortless way he just ‘did’.” Not all the death on ADIOS is literal mortality. “Imogene” is sung from the wreckage of a love that once “poked fun at the pain, stoked the sun in the rain” but ends with the urgent call to “act on the embers, ash won’t remember the way back to fire.”
The trademark lyrical agility is mirrored sonically. Never a genre loyalist, ADIOS finds Branan (much like his musically restless heroes Elvis Costello and Tom Waits) coloring outside the lines in sometimes startling shades of fuzz and twang. While unafraid to play it arrow-straight when called for (“The Vow,” “Equinox,” “Don’t Go”), ADIOS veers wildly from the Buddy Holly-esque rave up “I Only Know” (sung with punk notables Laura Jane Grace and Dave Hause), through the swampy “Walls, MS” to the Costello-like new wave of “Visiting Hours.”