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American Aquarium

Wolves – 2015 ( Self-released)

Reviewed by Dustin Blumhagen

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After a near break up, American Aquarium regrouped and returned stronger than ever. Their supposed swan song was so well received that they postponed their dissolution, continuing their near constant tour schedules and recorded "Wolves." While front man BJ Barham is sole songwriter, "Wolves" is the first release from the group to fully incorporate the other members.

The loosening of the creative reigns by Barham allows for a fresh dose of musical creativity, which occasionally suffered from a lack of originality. While "Burn. Flicker. Die." was intended to be a farewell in 2012, it suffered from a sense of resignation that contrasted with their former anthems.

"Wolves" is an interesting expansion of the familiar AA sound. In the past, the group has leaned heavily on a blend of Southern Rock and alt.country, carried by Barham's deep voice with a hint of twang. While his vocal styles are far more limited, Barham has never hidden his reverence for the roots rock tendencies of alt.-country anti-hero Ryan Adams.

Much like his idol, Barham crafts melancholic country songs with boundaries. These are good songs, but long-time fans may lament the absence of songs as poetic as "Hurricane" or "Rattlesnake," as well as the notable lack of anthemic songs like the near perfect gritty country rock of "Katherine Belle." The years appear to have softened the group, honing the edge from their sound and doing away with the influences of groups like Lucero and Drive by Truckers.

Barham's vocal limitations have a twofold effect. On one hand, they are limited in range and sometimes lack the emotional weight that his lyrics and advanced musicianship of the band provide. Even with his well-crafted songs, it is obvious that he doesn't live up to the levels of artists like Patterson Hood or Ryan Adams.

At the same time, the straightforward delivery adds a blue collar bar band feel to the songs, increasing their relatability. While he regularly laments the downsides of small town life, he comes across as a completely average guy who would comfortably fit into that world. The role of the band is more vital than on previous releases, weaving textured melodies around his words and adding depth. While the organ and pedal steel were present in the past, their presence is more noticeable here as are the pounding drums and strong bass lines. The group is more cohesive than ever.

Musically, they stretch themselves. The familiar country rock blend is ever present, but they explore the limits of the sound. The gritty country punk edge (in the vein of Lucero) is absent this time around with a softening of their sound to focus more on melody. On the highlight "Man I'm Supposed to Be," Barham evokes John Moreland and his deep lonesome baritone. But when they let loose, they really shine ("Losing Side of Twenty-Five," a lament of an aging musician constantly battling for recognition). There is a funky pop country sound, somewhere between Jake Owen and Counting Crows, which makes it one of the most memorable tracks.

Lyrically, the songs follow familiar topics like loneliness and road weariness. This time though, the struggle between the life of a musician on the road and the idea of maturing and settling down pulls the album in two distinct directions. This is the chronicle of a band that has logged endless miles on tour, never quite breaking through to the big time and the ups and downs of the lifestyle. The honest exposure of the hardships of a traveling musician could serve as a warning sign for aspiring artist, but there is enough romance evoked through these songs to dissuade any thoughts of giving up and settling down.