Since their inception in the mid-2000s, American Aquarium has for long stretches, been everyone’s favorite bar band. They’ve always been ones to wear their influences right on their sleeves. Often, the outfit was crowned as the “Next Whiskeytown” with vocalist BJ Barham playing the part of Ryan Adams. There’s certainly some truth to that. Still, the band blended a healthy dose of Lucero punk, Southern Springsteen swagger and the aggressive bite of the Drive-By Truckers.
Roadhouse anthems and drunken confessions have easily been their biggest calling card. When Barham opened up, no matter how brokenhearted or down and out, you found yourself almost envious. Few have painted the worst aspects of touring, struggling band woes, busted relationships and disappointment in general quite like American Aquarium has. Still, you can’t help but daydream about that slice of freedom. There’s a redeeming quality to it all despite knowing the end results. It’s like nursing a hangover that’s constantly reminding you of the good times you had.
Somehow, that aspect has remained strong in American Aquarium despite their maturing strides over the last handful of years. Their breakout album, Burn. Flicker. Die., found the band in some kind of unspoken but understood dire straits. This propelled the band forward taking them to new heights and into new territory. Barham’s songwriting still held that conviction and weight, but he’d advanced past vignettes about one-night stands, binge drinking and living the majority of your life in a van. Those were all in good fun, but this is undoubtedly a large world. Barham proved there was more to American Aquarium than just that. He proved there was more to BJ Barham than just that.
Despite a drastic turn of events last spring when the band behind Barham decided to call it quits after a decade on the road, Barham has returned with a new lineup. The newly equipped American Aquarium has been hitting the road much like the former — with a vigorous attack on the road, relentlessly hitting every place they can. Along with the lineup change has come a new album, the John Fullbright produced Things Change, tentatively due out later this Spring.
Without doubt, this list will change once Things Change is officially released, but for now, here are the Top 15 American Aquarium songs of all time.
The vast majority of Barham’s songwriting has been first-person driven. But every once in a while, he’d slip in a storyteller where he’d introduce new characters. “California” first appeared on the band’s debut album, Antique Hearts, but made its’ most impact on their follow-up The Bible and The Bottle. There’s an infectious rhythm to “California” that screams promise of an open highway. The fiddle ties a nice bow on top. Here, he uses Los Angeles as a sense of optimism for a budding couple. It’s one of Barham’s only compositions that’s concluded with a happy ending. Our couple finds happiness and success — something that doesn’t happen too often in the American Aquarium canon.
14. “Water In The Well”
“Water In The Well” was one of the few songs (“Reidsville” and “Road to Nowhere”) that were revived by Barham for his solo Rockingham album. Again, it’s one of the few songs where Barham steps away from the road life narrative and steps back into the rural south. In many respects, it’s Barham at his most Nebraska-era Springsteen. It’s reserved and solemn with its gentle banjo picking. Barham is withdrawn and defeated for good reason. He’s failed his family and himself. You can hear the callouses of working hands and the wrinkled lines of a worried man.
13. “Man I’m Supposed to Be”
By the time Wolves was released, American Aquarium had transformed into a well-oiled machine that was sonically charged with a sharp and sleek sound. They dived into dark soundscapes that captured Barham’s songwriting turn. After years of dependency, Barham found sobriety. In the process, he found an honest and real love. “Man I’m Supposed to Be” is quite the turn from “I Hope He Breaks Your Heart” of years past. There probably isn’t a better example of American Aquarium’s maturation and evolution than the smooth and graceful “Man I’m Supposed to Be” either.
12. “Betting Man”
“Well, I drank myself to sleep again,” is perhaps the most straightforward opening lines in the American Aquarium catalog. For every rowdy anthem, there’s a restless confession by Barham. It’s the aftermath of a Saturday night. Found near the end of Dances For The Lonely, “Betting Man” is, in some respects, the hidden gem of the album. There’s great interplay between the steady focus of the piano and the warbling cry of the pedal steel.
11. “City Lights”
“City Lights” is another sobering exhale from Dances For The Lonely. It plays out like a letter never mailed. Most of American Aquarium’s anthems highlight the fair-weathered companionship of endless night of boozing at your favorite bar. Their intimate ballads often capture some of those same broken and hallowed relationships. It’s the stranger’s arms of “Betting Man.” But where Barham and company really shined was when Barham confessed true solitude. “City Lights” is very much that. He’s isolated and alone despite being in the heart of a bustling city.
10. “Cape Fear River”
One of Barham’s tried and tested muses has been the rural corner of North Carolina. A son of Reidsville, Barham has repeatedly tried to capture the small town blues. Often, it’s been his main adversary. He’s fought the onslaught of incoming claws of common life time and again. “Reidsville” “Southern Sadness,” and if we included Barham’s solo material, “Rockingham” and “American Tobacco Company,” could easily be here. But none have the bite or punch of “Cape Fear River.” The guitars screech and moan. Barham does very much the same as he sketches out a bleak look at never escaping the doldrums your hometown.
Things came to a head with Burn. Flicker. Die. Barham and company almost gave up after this album. It was the last hoorah. “Casualties” is a major key to that. Barham loses the confident strut of albums past and pulls back the curtain to reveal a struggling band who’s essentially made their peace with the road and rock & roll. In turn though, it finds them at one of their their most relatable and charming moments. They’ve given up on “faking it to you make it” and replaced it with a heavy dose of realism.
8. “Katherine Belle”
This is prime American Aquarium. Katherine Belle is to American Aquarium what Lorrie is to Turnpike Troubadours — the good one who got away. You find an infatuated Barham drunk on lust. What makes “Katherine Belle” different than most of Barham’s flings is this time around, he’s the one chasing. The saxophone and beaming guitar are nods to Born to Run-era Springsteen. Even while American Aquarium has always felt Southern by nature, “Katherine Belle” genuinely feels like it was made by a band from the upper Northeast. It captures the slickness of New York City. The chorus and rhythm is as riveting and infectious as the sassy and confident protagonist.
7. “Losing Side of Twenty-Five”
Again, Wolves found American Aquarium in new territory. It’s on the cusp of laying it all out on the line the album before. They’re moderately successful and aren’t fighting the struggles of road nearly as often. Barham’s found sobriety and a clear conscience. “Losing Side of Twenty-Five” feels very much like Barham’s acknowledgement of the past. It’s a coming of age anthem that both concedes on some terms, but finds success with looking towards new goals.
“Jacksonville” is one of American Aquarium’s most haunting songs to date. It’s Barham confessing at an alarming rate. Lines like “so I’m gonna hit the streets tonight and make my way towards the neon lights and order a drink in a downtown dive until I forget my name” send out distress signals. Barham isn’t just fighting the lack of companionship; he’s fighting himself. It’s a sobering take that humanizes Barham to no end.
5. “I Hope He Breaks Your Heart”
For most, “I Hope He Breaks Your Heart” will forever be American Aquarium’s greatest song. It’s undoubtedly their greatest anthem and one of the biggest “eff yous” in music history. As the story goes, Barham hastily wrote the first rough draft of the song after seeing a recent ex-girlfriend with another guy one night after a show of theirs. He went back to the green room, jotted it down and ran back on stage and played the song acoustic. As Jack White would say, “make sure to never do it with the singer cause he’ll tell everyone in the world.”
Much like “Jacksonville” before it, “Burn.flicker.die.” sends out plenty of distress signals throughout. Here though, Barham isn’t so much confessing into a motel phone, but rather, he’s embracing those demons. Everything relies on context. The lines “it’s nights like these that the drugs don’t work. It’s getting in the way instead of picking me up. I wish my addictions didn’t mean so much, but we all can’t be born with that kind of luck” walk a fine line. On the surface, you’re shouting along with Barham, but on the inside, you’re melting with sorrow.
As brilliant as Barham’s casualties of rock & roll and neon lights burning out metaphor devices have been, his greatest has been the wolves nipping at your heels. For Barham, those wolves are his vices and inner demons. It’s what keeps him up at night with the constant tapping. It’s the devil on your shoulder. Again though, Barham has a gift for turning those struggles into anthems. In many respects, I think it’s that passionate response full of fervor and intensity from a rowdy crowd singing along that helps Barham continue winning that fight.
The opening “Family Problems” sets the tone for Wolves. As dark and broken as Barham can get –“Wolves,” “Burn.flicker.die.” and “Jacksonville” — “Family Problems” is different. It comes through a different side of the spectrum. There’s been glimpses of Barham’s background throughout American Aquarium, but none are as insightful as “Family Problems.” It’s a stark, beautiful and damning all at once. He reminds you that if you stare into the abyss long enough, the abyss stares back into you.
1. “Lonely Ain’t Easy”
“Lonely Ain’t Easy” first showed up on the bare EP Bones. But what most are familiar with is the dynamic version found on Burn.Flicker.Die. The album was recorded down in Muscle Shoals with Jason Isbell at the producing helm. As a result, Amanda Shires contributes an alluring fiddle into the mix. Listen closely though. You’ll hear Isbell and Shires providing the warm harmony vocals. Like “City Lights” or “Jacksonville,” “Lonely Ain’t Easy” finds Barham struggling to find genuine human attachment. The chorus is fairly simple and direct, but it’s cold, sharp and glum as possible. “Lonely ain’t easy. Lonely ain’t kind. Lonely won’t leave me cause she’s a good friend of mine” never quite leaves you. It lingers long after Barham and the boys are finished.