American Aquarium

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North Carolina alt-country outfit American Aquarium rose to prominence in the late 2000s with a sound that mixed twang, grit, and some straight-ahead rock & roll. With a name plucked from a Wilco lyric, they picked up the trail blazed by bands like Whiskeytown and the Drive-By Truckers, adding their own distinctive palette and point of view. Focused around the songs of frontman B.J. Barham, the group had already recorded four records and gone on countless tours before finding more widespread acclaim with 2012′s Burn.Flicker.Die. Over the years, Barham has retooled his lineup a number of times and became more politically outspoken on later releases like 2020′s poetic Lamentations. In 2021, the band offered up a two-volume covers project of ’90s/early-2000s country songs under the title Slappers, Bangers, and Certified Twangers, before returning to their original work with 2022’s Chicamacomico.
American Aquarium was formed in 2006 in Raleigh, North Carolina, by singer, guitarist, and songwriter B.J. Barham. The group’s early lineup featured pianist Zack Brown, bassist Bill Corbin, guitarist Ryan Johnson, drummer Kevin McClain, and pedal steel player Whit Wright. Despite an active touring schedule, the group also visited the recording studio regularly and released a pair of independent albums — 2006′s Antique Hearts and 2008′s The Bible and the Bottle — before partnering with Last Chance Records for 2009′s Dances for the Lonely. Fellow North Carolinian (and former dB's frontman) Chris Stamey produced the record, which also featured guest vocals from Whiskeytown alumna Caitlin Cary.
Arriving a year later, their fourth record, Small Town Hymns, further established their penchant for gritty, country-inspired heartland rock anthems. American Aquarium had a banner year in 2012 with the release of both their first concert album, Live in Raleigh, and their fifth studio LP, the Jason Isbell-produced Burn.Flicker.Die. Originally intended to be the group’s swan song, the album garnered significant critical acclaim and ushered in a very successful period. Reinvigorated by the album’s success, Barham teamed up with producer Brad Cook (Megafaun) for American Aquarium’s more alt-rock-inspired 2015 follow-up, Wolves. A second concert album, Live at Terminal West, appeared at the end of the year, documenting a show in Atlanta.
About a year later, Barham released a stark, reflective solo album titled Rockingham, which earned positive reviews. Meanwhile, American Aquarium continued to play out with the intention of recording another album in 2017. However, Barham dissolved the lineup early in the year, choosing instead to embark on a solo tour. By the following year, he had re-formed American Aquarium with a new lineup and marked this sea change by signing with New West Records. Their first outing with the label was 2018′s aptly titled Things Change. The album marked Barham’s turn toward writing more politically conscious lyrics, an approach he continued on the band’s bold eighth album, Lamentations. Released in 2020 and produced by Shooter Jennings, Lamentations explored themes of religion, politics, and the discord of a bitterly divided country.
As if to counterweight the heaviness of their later output, Barham’s next project was a love letter to some of the songs that inspired him while growing up. Released in May of 2021, Slapper, Bangers, and Certified Twangers, Vol. 1 saw American Aquarium covering a barrage of big country hits by Trisha Yearwood, Jo Dee Messina, and Toby Keith, among others. Their homage to ’90s country continued later in the year with the similarly spirited Vol. 2. The band returned to original work with their ninth studio album, 2022’s Chicamacomico. Recorded at Texas’ Sonic Ranch studios, the album was named after the Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station, a former Coast Guard station and museum on North Carolina’s Hatteras Island. ~ Andrew Leahey & Timothy Monger