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American Aquarium

Lamentations – 2020 (New West)

Reviewed by Lee Zimmerman

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American Aquarium have always been an important band, but the widespread recognition afforded groups like Wilco or Son Volt or Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit has often been underwhelming at best. Part of the fault may lie in the fact that American Aquarium has never bothered to reach into other realms, instead remaining true to a sound that embraces both attitude and authenticity. That's not a negative by any means. In fact, chief songsmith, singer and guitarist BJ Barham is not only a superb craftsman, but so well informed in fact that his efforts carried over to 2017's "Rockingham," a one-off solo set, as well.

American Aquarium can rightfully claim a place on the pantheon of other exceptional ensembles operating in the Americana arena. After all, with 14 years to their collective credit and any number of excellent albums spread out over the course of their career, that should be considered more than mere wishful thinking. "Lamentations" finds Barham digging in his heels, writing gritty songs with a certain gravitas, each a rumination and reflection on a fractured society and the fissures that are increasingly evident in the nation as a whole. "They say you're only as sick as your secrets/If that's the truth then friend I'm dying/Spent a lifetime savaging shipwrecks/Falling so long I thought I was flying," he sings on the rough-hewn rocker "Starts With You."

Indeed, the rest of the album is similarly sobering, from the tattered ballads "Me+Mine (Lamentations)" and "A Better South" the tough, tenacious populist anthems "Six Pears Come September," "The Day I Learned to Lie to You" and "The Luckier You Get" ("The harder you work, the luckier you get"). Barham and his bunch take no quarter while singling out the ills and shortcoming of the life as it's laid out before us, and in so doing, deliver one of the most emphatic offerings of this or any other year." And that makes "Lamentations truly something to celebrate.

Lee Zimmerman is a freelance writer and author based in Maryville, Tennessee. He also expounds on music on his web site, Stories Beyond the Music - Americana Music Reviews, Interviews & Articles. His book - "Americana Music - Voices, Visionaries and Pioneers of an Honest Sound" is available from Texas A&M University Publishing.