BY FRED MILLS
This past March in Austin, at BLURT’s annual SXSW day party, Raleigh’s American Aquarium was blazing through an inspiring set, then at one point vocalist/guitarist B.J. Barham introduced the next song with the words, “This one’s by the great North Carolina band the Backsliders.” And damned if most of the folks in the crowd whooped, clapped or nodded their heads in acknowledgment: even at this stage, long after the Backsliders’ mid ‘90s alt-country heyday, people remembered, and appreciated, so it was fitting that this fine young combo of Tarheel twangers were the ones to tip an appreciative hat to the legacy.
Together for six years and six albums, American Aquarium have hooked up with producer Jason Isbell down in Alabama for their latest release. Isbell also plays on the record, while guests include fiddler (and his wife) Amanda Shires and piano legend Spooner Oldham plus a host of NC luminaries; Chris Stamey handled mixing duties. With firepower like that, how could Burn. Flicker. Die. not be a winner? Of course, it helps when the root talent is so prominent; in Barham, the Aquarium has a baritone-throated bundle of charisma; and guitarist Ryan Johnson, bassist Bill Corbin, drummer Kevin McClain and steel player Whit Wright perform with the bar-band oomph and in-the-pocket elasticity of Steve Earle’s Dukes. The album kicks off with the brooding, blue-collar study “Cape Fear,” Johnson’s ominous peals of lead snaking around Barham’s biographical sketches:
“I ain’t the man,
Half the man my daddy was
Half the man he wanted me to be…
You either get locked up or you join the corp
Or you work the grill at Pete’s burgers and more
Or you buy a map and you pick a spot and you drive as fast as you can.”
Dreaming big and wondering whether this small town’s gonna crush those dreams has been inspiring songwriters since Woody Guthrie (and probably before), and American Aquarium slots perfectly into that songwriting tradition. The group’s also resolute in its collective belief that we can get outta here as long as the music’s there as salvation. Dreams/getting out is a theme that recurs across the album—“Failure runs through the veins of this city… We’re all just dreamers chasing disasters” (-“St. Mary’s”); “If I make it out alive I’ll call you, know I will, if I could just survive one more night in Jacksonville” (-“Jacksonville”). Although this isn’t a teenage view of the romance of the road, because elsewhere Barham makes it clear he understands that the seductions and sirens of the road can be a dead end too, as in these lines from “Casualties”: “It’s like playing a game you know you’ll never win/ And you’re down to your last hand and you’re all in.”
Throughout, the music crackles and snarls with a raw viscerality that carries distinct echoes of the Drive-By Truckers and early-seventies Rolling Stones—boozy, swaggering closing track “Saturday Nights” even sports a signature crunch-riff that’d put a big smile on Keith Richards’ face.
Oh, and then there’s “Abe Lincoln”—the one by the Backsliders. Originally penned by B-sliders mainman Chip Robinson, it’s given a heartfelt, rousing treatment here by the Aquarium. “A.L.” is a classic anthem by any measure, part-Earle, part-Springsteen and all-Americana, and point of fact, these boys do indeed make it their own. You might even say it represents a kind of torch-passing from one generation of Tarheel rockers to another (given that the Backsliders reunited not long ago, it might even represent a torch-sharing). American Aquarium is one of the best goddam bands operating out of the Carolinas at the moment, and that’s because when you see them perform or listen to one of their records, you can tell they are believers.
DOWNLOAD: “Jacksonville,” “Saturday Nights,” “Cape Fear River,” “Abe Lincoln”