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.

American Aquarium – Burn.Flicker.Die
American Aquarium – Abe Lincoln
American Aquarium – Saint Mary’s

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.

Author: Mike Ostrov

Mike Ostrov relays the history of popular song on message boards and under rocks.


  1. Awesome review Mike. And awesome record. I may be over the thinking that a little band in our scene can really make a dent into a bigger audience, at least not a giant dent. But I’d be happy if AA could fill bigger places and put a little money in the bank. Lord knows they’ve been working hard enough.

    I’ve been seeing them for five years now, i think, and i often refer to them as the little band that could, like the kids book, and I hope to see them out here in the mountain west sooner than later.

    1. thanks, buddies.

      I think bands from our level can still make dents. You can tell while they’re still on our level which ones they are. There are lots of levels between Glossary and Katy Perry and those levels are filled with a bunch of shit actors, and then Gaslight, Lucero, DBT. You always knew Gaslight would be where they are, I just thought they would’ve improved as a band by this time, but…. But it was always up in the air whether mass-people could “tolerate” good country rock enough to like Lucero. So, AA might be on a Lucero trajectory, could take a while. Big big step, this album.

      1. Black Keys, too. Hot Water Music. There’s always upper-mid-level bands breaking though, earning some comfort capital after working up through punk bars.

        It takes longer than it should, but if you put out enough great work, it can still happen.

  2. Charles is right – American Aquarium is one of the hardest touring bands around and they’ve definitely paid their dues. We appreciate all your support and help in trying to move them to the next level. Spread the word!

  3. Women and Work hasn’t found its way back into the car cd player in 3 days…AA is a FANTASTIC band of great guys and stoked to see they just keep getting better and better…..

  4. This is a really great album! I’d put this up there with Sons of Bill’s Sirens as my favorite albums of this year so far.

  5. I guess I’m going to be the lone voice of dissent here but I get a little disappointed with the level of songwriting on AA albums. I love the music and the “sound” is good, but I feel like it could stronger lyrically. For example, on two straight songs on BFD, “heart” is rhymed with “apart.” Numerous times “light” is rhymed with “night.” It’s like there’s a go-to cliche that must be used every couple of songs. How many AA songs use storm to describe a woman?

    It’s not that I don’t enjoy AA albums. I do. It’s just that sometimes I cringe when the lyrics make me think of my friends’ old fraternity band.

    1. first song i heard from burn flicker die was Casualties. they opened with it when they played with Lucero at Georges in Fayetteville. It was the best show i’ve seen this year and i’ve been looking forward to owning the new CD ever since. this road song was the PERFECT opener.

    2. I know what you mean about the lyrics. I think repetitive lyrics are fine if they’re contained to one album or two connected albums. To continue with the Gaslight parallel, it was fine when Fallon used the same diction on Sink or Swim and 59 because 59 was an improvement. But then on American Slang he used the same exact diction again but just on a side-stepping album that didn’t improve on anything or offer anything new. Then on Handwritten, still the same exact images and diction and metaphors but used in a completely false way and still with no improvement as a band. BUT, that kind of makes it so that every new Gaslight album is a great album to be introduced to Gaslight. Good for newbies, bad for veterans.

      I haven’t heard all of the AA albums, so if they fall into that pattern it doesn’t appear to me. This is an incredible album on its own, it’s self-contained and has a narrative. Like I said, the sense of humor and the willing self-contradiction go miles toward keeping it powerful.

  6. Great album! Cant wait for my vinyl to get here!

    Good call on the Gaslight comparison. Also, “so let’s drink to the saltwater summers” remind anyone else of something The Hold Steady would write?

  7. I popped over here as a long time 9 bullets fan to see what the best album of 2013 was, because they have all been may faves. I guess that I shouldn’t be surprised that burn flicker die won, ive been playing it for months and its that best album I’ve heard last year.

Comments are closed.