It’s reasonable for a person who has listened to music, critically or just actively, for the better part of a person’s life to have a conflicted relationship with “road songs.” On one hand, it’s physically impossible to hear Willie’s “On the Road Again” too many times. On the other, Road Song is a frustrating phenomena that infects many a touring band so that they can only write about touring. It’s frustrating because 1) the listener likely isn’t a rock star, didn’t have the guts to even try, so stop rubbing it in and 2) yeah, any idiot can see it’s a flawed lifestyle, stop whining about it. The listener’s lifestyle is probably A) great and B) shitty, too, so the whole point of this relationship is find a language through which both performer and listener can talk about all the weird conflicts and dualities of being on earth together without either one sounding too oblivious.
That brings us to “Burn Flicker Die,” the title track of the new album from Raleigh NC’s American Aquarium. I tell you, it’s one of the best song’s I’ve ever heard. It’s written in the apex of that common language. The song and the album sound like something that would’ve played on my parent’s turntable growing up. Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves,” Tom Petty’s Into the Great Wide Open. BJ Barham and company achieve that feeling without the shorthand tactics that a more limited or nostalgia-dependent writer (Brian Fallon) would take to get there. What I mean is that when American Aquarium begin a verse with Every girl in that bar looked like 1965 / her sailor tattoos and her drawn-out eyes–which could easily be a Gaslight lyric (I mean, it’s so easy it is a Gaslight lyric), you don’t have to instinctively cringe and roll your eyes and wait two more verses for a redeeming line–you’re going to get your satisfaction immediately. Every now and then she still crosses my mind / by ‘every now and then,’ I mean ‘most of the time.’ They actually have a sense of humor about themselves, in a song about dying! The sense of humor of Warren Zevon singing his hair was p-erfect is the same that brings Barham’s narrator to contradict himself here. Then, like Kris Kristofferson, American Aquarium won’t leave any lyric unpunctuated. The punches come at the end. They work toward the punches, they land.
Recording one of the best songs I’ve ever heard earns the album its Essential Listening kudos easy. But how does it fill out? Badassly. Though not without some Road Song: “Jacksonville” and “Casualties” hint at the predictable, and “Savannah Almost Killed Me” short-hands Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row” with a Betty Davis reference; but the sheer fact that NONE of them are half-assed goes all the way in keeping them clear of banality. That effort and the writing keep American Aquarium from lapsing from occasional benign Road Songs to malignant Road Band. They do the road wholly committed. The commitment is a huge part of that common language. And the aforementioned songs only attract that kind of stupid, un-fun hyper-reading because “Burn Flicker Die” was so fucking good. The rest of the album is untouchably awesome. “Abe Lincoln,” “Saint Mary’s,” and an oldie from their Bones EP, “Lonely Ain’t Easy” especially.
This has been a freakishly great year for throwback country-rock. The Lee Bains album channeling Hendrix and Skynyrd; the Only Sons album resurrecting The Faces and James Brown and Thin Lizzy; and now American Aquarium doing it how Zevon and Petty and the Stones did. You should realize how lucky you are that you got one album that successful, let alone three. This one is a genuine standout. Again: Essential Listening.
Pick up Burn, Flicker, Die on vinyl and CD from Lone Star Music and Last Chance Records; buy the digital from iTunes or Amazon on August 28; keep up with AA’s website and Facebook because you’d better see them live.