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Music

American Aquarium Offer 'Lamentations' on the American Dream

Photo: Joshua Black Wilkins / Courtesy of New West Records

On Lamentations, Americana band American Aquarium address these hard times, the sins of the South, and those that want the band to just shut up and sing.

Lamentations
American Aquarium

New West

8 May 2020

The Book of Lamentations concerns the destruction of the Jewish holy city of Jerusalem by the Babylonians back in 586 B.C. The writings describe the demolition of the temple as well as the pain and suffering of the people. The tone suggests the devastation was deserved because of the wickedness of the citizens. God does not appear in the work, although it's suggested the deity will be merciful and eventually reappear.

BJ Barham, American Aquarium's founder, and sole original member named the band's latest album Lamentations in reference to the death of the American Dream. He doesn't take sides or name names. He invokes the Bible and blames politicians from both sides of the aisle, although there are specific jibes at those who make false promises. Barham does this most eloquently on "Me and Mine" where he wails:

What are you supposed to do
When the God you're prayin' to
Up and goes missin'?
Leaves a trail of unpaid bills
Broken homes and opioid addiction
And then a politician shows up
Promisin' that
He'll return the jobs
That God himself could not bring back.

The allusion to President Trump and coal mining is clear in the context of the song, but on the rest of the album, he points his finger everywhere, including at the man in the mirror. Barham does this most explicitly on the gospel-rooted intonations of "The Day I Learned to Lie to You". The song bristles with the pain of the self-inflicted kind. The narrator knows he's responsible for the breakup of his home. Regret doesn't bring redemption. The song ends on a sorrowful note.

Barham sings in the first person, but that doesn't mean the songs are explicitly autobiographical. They often seem to be a composite of personal confession and a composite of historical personages. He offers a documentary narrative about the place he's from—the American South. Barham's not shy about placing blame. Just as the denizens of Jerusalem were impiously responsible for their fate, his fellow Southerners are liable for their sins.

In a voice that echoes Bruce Springsteen's tales of New Jersey, Barham proclaims his vision of "A Better South". He acknowledges that "on the backs of the poor, these towns were built / for every ounce of pride comes a pound of guilt." He humbly notes the history of slavery and the harsh lives of the impoverished in the past, but he doesn't stop there. Barham notes the more recent times were not much better. "I'm sick and tired of listening to Daddy's generation / The byproduct of war and segregation / Still thinking they can tell us of what to do / Who can live where and who can love who," he sings in a strong voice. Those that want him just to shut up and sing are the real problem, he notes, alluding to the situation of the Dixie Chicks for speaking out.

Surprisingly, the record was recorded in Los Angeles instead of a Southern studio. Shooter Jennings produced the album and put Barham's vocals at the forefront. The rest of the band (guitarist Shane Boeker, bassist Alden Hedges, keyboardist Rhett Huffman, pedal steel player Neil Jones, and drummer Ryan Van Fleet) provide a steady groove. Sometimes, on songs such as "The Luckier You Get", the production borders the cheesy as sing-alongs and loud harmonies (instrumental and vocal) overwhelm the material. The tracks that work best are the simplest ones.

Lamentations ends on a promising note as Barham suggests hard work may resolve his and our collective problems. That seems to contradict previous notions on the rest of the record where we learn about his hard-working ancestors getting screwed by the government and those with money and power. However, as Barham suggests, what other choice do we have. We can only mourn for so long before we need to pick up the gauntlet to create a better future.

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