The risk in loving an independent band is facing the fact that one day they may achieve mainstream success.
On the face of it, this is naive and a stupid attitude for fan. What kind of a sadist wants grown people to spend the rest of their professional lives in a cramped van? But the concerns are from a deeper, worried place – Can a love a mainstream band when mainstream bands suck? How many ways can I sneer at new fans? What if they change their sound? Will I still be able to get tickets to their show? And so on…
American Aquarium fans may now be faced with such an existential dilemma. After years of paying blacktop and beer joint dues (and suffering the indignity of having Florida Georgia Line open for them just to watch them explode to mainstream country stardom) BJ Barham , guitarists Ryan Johnson and Colin Dimeo, bassist Bill Corbin, drummer Kevin McClain and Whit Wright on keyboard and pedal-steel guitar might have their breakthrough album on their calloused hands.
Those dues have become fertile source of inspiration resulting in 10 tightly wound roots-rock cuts. ‘Wolves’ shines brightest in it’s darkest corners. With his gravel baritone Barham frets over getting older, missed opportunities, family strife and yes life on that lonesome highway. On cuts like ‘Family Problems’ and ‘Man I’m Supposed to Be,’ the atmosphere builds, the pedal steel wails or the horns swell, the songs elevates into greatness.
BUt sometimes the arrangements on the jauntier cuts, like with ‘Southern Sadness’ and ‘Old North State,’ robs the songs of their emotional punch and the singer/music contrast doesn’t quite mesh. it’s as if Merle Haggard were fronting Pearl Jam, on their own they excel, but together…something gives.
And we can’t forget The Rocking. ‘Wichita Falls and ‘Losing Side of Twenty-Five’ are flat out stompers ripe for the stage and will be fan anthems for years to come.
Barham’s songwriting honors the Southern tradition of embodying and championing the stern struggle of the working poor as they strive to keep things together against the odds. ‘Wolves’ doesn’t offer any glib answers or obfuscate with party anthems. Barham’s world is more complicated, real. It brims of steely contemplation, guts and fighting through.
‘Wolves’ is an album that may not launch Barham and Co. onto Music City arena headliners anytime soon. But it does put them further along their path to being a band that matters.