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BJ Barham

Rockingham – 2016 (At the Helm)

Reviewed by Brian Baker

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CDs by BJ Barham

Profound tragedy affects everyone in vastly different ways. For American Aquarium front man BJ Barham, the outpouring of concern for his band when they were touring Belgium during the 2015 Paris terrorist attacks sparked a collection of quietly intense songs. As these compositions - largely inspired and set in places resembling Barham's tiny hometown of Reidsville, N.C. - presented themselves and evolved, Barham understood they were philosophically removed from the rootsy anthemics that fuel American Aquarium, and that they would ultimately be better suited to become his debut solo album, "Rockingham."

Barham's songs are bleak evocations of real small town life, the struggles, the failures and the realization that the vaunted American Dream is as ephemeral and vaporous as its name implies. That concept is brought into sharp relief on the opening track, "American Tobacco Company," as Barham takes the first person perspective of a returning WWII veteran, forced into a job where he has to "watch these big machines crush my hopes and dreams into Pall Malls and Lucky Strikes." Love is dashed on "Unfortunate Kind," not by an illicit affair, but by the vagaries of old age, uncontrollable forces threaten the family farm and prayers go unanswered on "Water in the Well," and small town desperation bubbles over on "Reidville" and the title track.

Although Barham's songs - some being reimagined AA tracks - are deeply personal and intimate, "Rockingham" is not an autobiographical album; he inhabits his factional narrators, understanding and giving voice to their pain and suffering. Barham's raspy Steve-Earle-meets-Bruce-Springsteen vocal quality and his makeshift band's spare accompaniment lends a dusty authenticity to the eight somber short stories.