w/ Kentucky Shoes
Sat. April 11
1977 Maybank Hwy.
Pity the woman who breaks BJ Barham’s heart. She’ll probably end up in a song. Then the American Aquarium bandleader will sneer as he hisses her name into the microphone on any one of a thousand nights in any one of a thousand bars just like the one in which he probably met her.
He’ll preface “Whore Song” — a live staple — with a sly comment. “I’m not bitter or anything, I swear,” a pained smile curling his lip. “You fuck like a woman/But you love like a little girl” he’ll accuse before launching into the chorus. “And I hope he breaks your heart/And I hope you cry all night/And I hope you feel like I do now.”
His venom is convincingly pure. He sings like that very woman is in the back of the room smirking at him. His eyes narrow, welling up with bile and tenderness. He’s nothing if not sincere.
And that sincerity — an echo of forbears like Bruce Springsteen, Jay Farrar, and Craig Finn — is a large part of American Aquarium’s appeal. For the most part, the Raleigh-based band doesn’t stray far from its thematic trinity: girls, God, and alcohol. But within its narrow scope, the band paints detailed portraits on a wide canvas, resulting in a universal resonance, helped more than a little by Barham’s earnest intensity behind the microphone.
The band’s new album, Dances for the Lonely, trades the whiskey-drenched country-rock dust-ups of 2008’s The Bible and the Bottle for fuller, more colorful bar rock arrangements not too far removed from the Hold Steady. It also finds the quintet at its best, able to draw upon its back catalog’s alt-country leanings, but flesh out the old ideas with new textures (like horns and pianos) and more completely mesh the band’s rock and country tendencies.
Whether the band steps back to quietly complement a country ballad like “Downtown Girls” with a sad shuffle and softly weeping steel guitar, or ramping up a bar-room anthem like “Mary Mary,” it sounds equally well suited for a dive bar, a stadium, or the best Chevy Trucks commercial never made.
Live, Barham can give his band a break, for a solo song borrowing plenty from all of Ryan Adams’ heart-on-sleeve balladry and flashes of lyrical brilliance. Or with the band in tow, he can lead the room through shots of Uncle Tupelo’s whiskey-drenched and gravel-worn country-rock and the Hold Steady’s fists-raised bombast, making American Aquarium a versatile unit, and one that ought to strike a chord with anybody who’s ever been drunk and/or heartbroken. Or about to be.
Sometime in the set, Barham will settle down. The bile in his throat will recede, and he’ll remind you that love and lust isn’t all pain. Maybe he’ll crack a smile and head into “Clark Avenue,” whose refrain gives The Bible and the Bottle its title. Jump blues piano trills and Telecaster crunch meets a blazing fiddle and a driving rhythm section. Barham’s telling his story about meeting a “sexy as sin” redhead in double-time. “Her hand kept crawlin’ up my thigh/She says, ‘I don’t do this with most guys,'” he boasts, surprised by his own luck. “My heart was racin’ like an engine and dancin’ like a Harlem queen.”
Here’s hoping — for her sake — she does him right.