I’m sitting here in front of the laptop on the eve of getting to see American Aquarium live for the very first time (by the time you’re reading this I’ll already have seen them) and I’m preparing to do my third piece about an American Aquarium album. When they first started up they were easily described as Whiskeytown-meets-Lucero, and every obligatory Springsteen reference was earned in full. With their latest album, Small Town Hymns, I feel like the band is finally starting to try and break out of those limits. Some will point at the lyrical content of this album and say it’s safe, playing well within the tried and true confines of the alt.country genre, and honestly I cannot argue with that assessment. That said, what B.J.’s lyrics might lack in refinement is made up in the kind of authenticity that can occasionally find a small handful of his “songs” present in the bar during hometown shows, and I can appreciate that kind of thing.
In the past I’ve described American Aquarium as an “indie rock band with just enough twang & swagger to keep this particular blogger engaged”. This time around the tides have certainly changed, bringing us a largely Americana sound with enough indie elements to keep it from sounding stale or formulaic but that swagger, that ain’t going nowhere.
For me the real gem in this album isn’t in it’s lyrical content (liked or not) and it’s not in the indie main dish, which has been relegated to a mere side dish. No, where this album truly excels is in its overall feel. To me, the album has a quiet desperation to it with an underlying theme of people trying get out of their self-defined limits, beliefs, towns and habits, even though everyone, including themselves, know they’ll probably fail. Maybe it’s ’cause I grew up in a small town with the same mind frame or ’cause I’m drunk tonight, but there is something about that that I can embrace, befriend and label Essential Listening.