I’m going to try to be fair and balanced in this review of American Aquarium’s album Wolves but that’s not going to be easy. Here are the basics: I really like the album. As a whole it’s a little more subdued than some of their other albums. Feel-wise it has a lot in common with Small Town Hymns. Musically the band has created more complex and interesting arrangements. Lyrically BJ expresses less bitterness and anger. These are differences but it’s still the same five guys (plus a new one) playing American Aquarium music. It is Essential Listening because you have to hear it, long time fan or newbie, you have to hear this record.
But let’s go back a few years and talk about why it’s hard for me to be unbiased. Shortly after The Bible and The Bottle was released my bartender friend told me I had to come see the band that was playing that night. I couldn’t make it that night but I checked out their songs on MySpace and liked what I heard. Two or three months later they were back. American Aquarium showed up in a tiny bar in Oxford MS to play for a room full of people who weren’t really paying attention. I was drinking High Life and paying attention more than most. Then I bought a copy of The Bible and The Bottle, went home and listened to it a lot.
For the next three or four years American Aquarium showed up in Oxford every couple of months. I saw them in six different bars, all within a quarter of a mile of each other, and once outside in the daytime. I became friendly with a couple of the members and I like to think I was their first fan in that town. Most of their shows were for 10 to 30 people while the rest of the people in the bar didn’t give a shit. They’ve always done things the hard way and I watched them struggle for years.
But the songs were good and slowly more people started to catch on. Eventually American Aquarium came to Oxford for a month or so and recorded Small Town Hymns, they were spending so much time there we almost considered them a local band. I remember the night or nights that I first heard such staples as “Hurricane”, “Katherine Belle”, and “I Hope He Breaks Your Heart” before Dances For The Lonely came out. Bill and BJ told me people in other towns were catching on a little bit too. They said they had some good shows, some good towns and sometimes got to play with bigger drawing bands. Still, this was all happening very, very slowly.
All of this was happening before I was writing for Nine Bullets, in fact, I wasn’t following music on the internet much at all around this time. When I became a regular reader of Nine Bullets it was great to see that American Aquarium had fans all over the place, people like me who had spent too much time in the same bars for too many years. Fans that knew all the songs that had watched the band grow from album to album.
I moved to Colorado and they came to Ft. Collins to play to twelve people, it was like it was years before and I could see the miles of disappointment on their faces and in the way they played. Later Burn.Flicker.Die. came out and the word was spreading. I saw them play in Denver and 75 people were listening but BJ talked to me about how he didn’t know if they would keep at it. I didn’t realize at the time how serious he was. It felt like the corner was starting to turn but they were too road-worn to see it or really appreciate it. In hindsight we all know that it was starting to happen for them but the toll had taken so much out of them already. Thankfully the band survived and now things like appearances on CMT and write-ups in the Wall Street Journal are happening. And shows in many states are attended by the hundreds.
Because I have seen things with American Aquarium from the beginning there’s no way my personal feeling can’t be entirely separated from my thoughts on Wolves. Because they always did it the hard way and stuck in there when many people would have quit, there’s no band that we write about here that I am more proud of than American Aquarium.
And that all leads us to Wolves, a departure of sorts but more a growth in confidence and perspective. The album starts with “Family Problems” and lyrically BJ is exploring themes he’s mined before but the difference comes from the way he is contemplating his life instead of reacting to it. On past records the songs lived within the moment and that often led to bitterness and raw emotion, which is a lot of fun to listen to but doesn’t last forever. Musically the end of “Family Problems” makes it clear that this isn’t your older brother’s American Aquarium album.
The contemplative nature continues into “Man I’m Supposed To Be”, a late night winner, but it’s with the trio of “Wichita Falls”, “Old North State” and “Ramblin’ Ways” that Wolves really takes off and comes alive. These three songs are the heart of the album and show where the band has been and where it’s going the best. A line in “Wichita Falls” makes me laugh every time I hear it. “Remember nothing good happens after 3AM,” is a line the narrator of the song says to his girl back home but years ago I could easy see BJ saying or writing that nothing good happens before 3AM. The new perspective acts as a warning for a loved one to watch out for the kind of man the narrator once was.
Wolves isn’t without its faults, there aren’t many anthem/sing-a-long moments or drunken dance moments. Lyrically some familiar American Aquarium themes are dealt with in similar ways to songs on previous albums. But none of those issues overshadow the high points. Wolves is a truly great record but more importantly it is a record of survival.
Who knows how many more albums American Aquarium will make, who knows how many more years they’ll play 200+ dates. But what we do know is that they’ve gotten to where they are the hard way and have earned every new fan that Wolves is sure to bring them. My hat’s off to these six guys.