American Aquarium: Small Town Hymns
A hard-gigging seven piece who combine Southern blues-rock with country, comparisons between Drive-By Truckers and American Aquarium are inevitable. But not unfair - both bands transcend their genre to produce big-hearted songs that are easy to love.
I sense that American Aquarium won’t be offended by the comparison, either. They thank both the Drive-By Truckers and the ex-Trucker Jason Isbell in the sleevenotes.
“If this is a band to rank up with Drive By-Truckers”, I hear you wondering, “then why haven’t I heard of them before?” A fair question. ‘Small Town Hymns’ is the band’s fourth record, and comes after they have played more than 600 shows in the states. But, it’s the first time we in Britain have had the chance to hear their music. Americans have been listening to this album (and judging by my online research, lavishing it with praise) for nearly a year now.
So what have we been missing? The band is built around the songs of BJ Barham. (I’m already inclined to like him - we share the same initials.) He has a rich, deep voice - which sets the tone for the music with a country-twang and a rock-star snarl.
Beneath the bandleader are six full-time bandmates, who offer a combination of keyboards (piano and Wurlitzer), electric and upright bass, drums, guitar, banjo, Hammond B3 and pedal steel. Obviously, Barham doesn’t think all that is enough, because he’s also roped in two backing vocalists and extra mandolin, another upright bass, a banjo and a violin. Never, however, does he allow all these instruments to get in the way of the songs. His vocals remain the core of every track.
Barham’s themes mirror those of his contemporaries in the Drive-By Truckers and the Gaslight Anthem - love and heartbreak, hope and poverty. He has basically taken the Springsteen template and given it another twist. But, he writes authentically and also adds religious references that seem very much his own. Ultimately, American Aquarium do little that is strictly new, but they do everything with passion and class.
‘Coffee and Cigarettes’ represents Barham at his cleverest. It’s a simple love song at its heart, but he twists meanings to make gnarly rock ‘n’ roll staples (coffee, cigarettes, whisky, hard drugs) into oddly touching metaphors.
Meanwhile ‘Water In The Well’ is the story of a farmer despairing as his family business goes under and ‘Brother Oh Brother’ is the despairing letter home from a soldier whose passion for fighting has gone. Barham’s traditional style yields themes that fit effortlessly into modern life, as much we all wish they didn’t.
‘Small Town Hymns’ isn’t flashy. But it’s the work of a talented songwriter and a deftly ambitious band. Why on earth haven’t their records been available in Britain before now?