American Aquarium’s last full-length album, 2009′s Dances for the Lonely, is full of Springsteen-esque rock and Hold Steady hooks. It ropes you in from the first few chords of the first track. It won me over pretty quick, and placed number three on my Top 20 of 2009.
Their newest release, Small Town Hymns, is not a replica of, or a follow-up to, Dances. It’s not a rock album and it won’t immediately grab your attention, but it will sneak up on you and grow on you if you let it.
With the bar band left behind–at least for the time being–on Small Town Hymns, American Aquarium presents ten tracks that find lead singer/songwriter BJ Barham taking a detour from the ire and heartbreak that fueled Dances (“a ‘fuck you’ record about one girl said 12 different ways“). The result is a somewhat-mixed outing, with the North Carolina band reverting to the basic elements of a southern/alt.country/roots-whatever band while showcasing a more mature sound.
One of the album’s flaws is BJ’s lyrical approach to women, which drifts a little too often towards simple metaphor and cliche–woman as hurricane (Track 1); woman as rattlesnake (Track 7). In between we find (on Track 2) “a modern-day Audrey Hepburn,”the queen of Appalachia” and that she is, inevitably (by Track 9) “Gone, Long Gone”.
The exception to this pattern is “Meredith”. Punctuated with a mid-tempo country shuffle, you can hear BJ sidestep cliches and aspire to break his old patterns, promising Meredith, “I’ll change for you.” (Although, I think we all know how that’s gonna work out.) My other favorite song on Small Town Hymns is the accomplished “Coffee and Cigarettes,” which tackles familiar territory but with a unique treatment.
Dances was written in response to a particularly painful breakup and targeted at one South Carolina resident named Nicole. Each track felt entirely, if painfully, sincere. There didn’t seem to be a question that each song was based on an actual person or event, whether it was someone BJ wanted to marry or someone he knew for a few hours. But for some reason, I suspect the songs on Small Town Hymns are based are theoretical characters.
In addition to mis-steps in love, the other prevailing theme on Small Town Hymns is a look at the social geography of the South. On “Water in the Well,” we hear the familiar story of a Georgian farmer about to lose his land, and with it, his pride. “Reidsville” introduces an 18-year-old trying to escape his hometown, though both the singer and the audience know he’s predestined to fail.
While at times it feels like the band is turning out obligatory pieces on prescribed themes, and BJ is reaching a little too far for a rhyme (“when she called me darlin’, I started caterwaulin’”), Small Town Hymns is a welcome addition to the growing catalog of this Carolina band, even without the Springsteen fix.
Be sure to catch these guys live when they play a town near you, which, at 300 shows per year, they are bound to do. In addition to putting on a sincerely great live show, these dudes are sweethearts and just the right amount of trouble.