American Aquarium, ‘Wolves’ – Album Review
When American Aquarium released their 2012 album, 'Burn. Flicker. Die.', it was supposed to be the end. The end for a band that tried and failed; one last gasping breath before they “just pack it up and say we did the best we could.” The Jason Isbell-produced album ended up having a very different effect. The critics took note, the fan base grew, and two years later a revitalized band with a new outlook stepped into the studio to record 'Wolves.'
Through years of playing more than 250 shows every 12 months, American Aquarium have established a loyal group of fans. That belief in the fans led to a successful Pledgemusic campaign and in June last year, American Aquarium went into Echo Mountain Studios in Asheville, N.C. to begin work on their eighth release, 'Wolves.'
Lead singer and chief songwriter BJ Barham says that musically this album is the most representative of the full band. When listening to the LP, this makes sense. While past records had certain songs that may have veered off into slightly different musical styles, this is definitely the most uniform sounding recording of the band. While the alt country influence of fellow Raleigh band Whiskeytown is evident, the years of tours through honky-tonks and dive bars shines through -- each song features a balance of steel guitar and big guitar accenting Barham's distinct southern accent.
While 'Burn. Flicker. Die.' had the underlying message of a band coming to the realization that they had wasted their years, 'Wolves' seems to be more of a symphony of acceptance. The quarter-life crisis is over, and instead of lamenting on what went wrong, it's now time to push ahead and make it all worthwhile. This is most evident in songs like 'The Man I'm Supposed to Be,' 'The Losing Side of 25' and the title track, 'Wolves.' Once you've gotten over the partying, the drugs and the fun, it's time to face the fact that this is real life. You can give up, feel sorry for yourself, and wish you'd done it better, or you can realize “there are different paths to happiness / I took a different path I guess / And came out on the other side just fine.” It may not be the fairytale ending that you had once imagined, but “I got a couple songs and some boys that I call friends / And a pretty girl that I can call my own.”
For fans attracted to the band's previous songs of heartbreak, this album won't disappoint. Though not full of the angst of 'I Hope He Breaks Your Heart' or the loneliness of 'Tennessee' from 2009's 'Dances for the Lonely,' a more grown up set of emotions comes across through songs like 'Wichita Falls' and 'End Over End,' the latter being one of the best surprises on the album, with musical style changes that will likely make you feel the ups and downs of a relationship in turmoil.
For many people, 'Wolves' will be their first experience with American Aquarium. And after 10 years of touring, recording, and writing, the time is right for it. The 10 song record is one of the most concise representations of the band -- you can hear the strain and vulnerability of the life that has led to this point. The album ends with 'Who Needs a Song' which lyrically sums up the general tone of the whole album: This life can be hard. You can make mistakes. Things don't always work out like you hope, but as long as you can accept the bad and move on and take the good parts and treasure them, you will survive.
As Barham so eloquently puts it, “I'll never have the fame or the fortune / I'll never drive a fancy car / And I'll never be one of the cool kids / Playing songs that make the girls dance at the bar / Who needs those things anyway?”