Review: ‘Chicamacomico’, American Aquarium

Chicamacomico rests on Hatteras Island in North Carolina’s Outer Banks, a quiet, relatively undeveloped collection of seaside villages originally inhabited by Native Americans until settlers landed in the 16th Century. In 1915, the Life-Saving Station in the community of Rodanthe fell under the purview of the newly formed United States Coast Guard,  and when a British tanker was attacked by a German U-boat just a few miles from their shore in 1918, the surfmen of Chicamacomico sprung into action to rescue the crew of the HMS Mirlo. A little over a century later, BJ Barham came to the “Sinking Down Sands” to write an album.

It’s been two years since American Aquarium released a collection of original material. As on time as possible and replete with the band’s signature blend of blue-collar soul bruisers, the Shooter Jennings-produced Lamentations arrived in May of 2020 amidst the painfully immediate backdrop of a global pandemic and worsening American politics. The unprecedented pause suffered by working musicians as COVID-19 crushed tour schedules and festivals also proved to be an opportunity for some, and AA frontman and founder Barham– ever striving to put his money where his mouth is and outwork everyone— launched his own imprint, Losing Side Records.

For the label’s inaugural outing, BJ and the gang cut a series of ’90s country radio gems and released two volumes under the banner of Slappers, Bangers & Certified Twangers. Again, their timing couldn’t have been better. Rallied around songs recorded by Joe Diffie, Sawyer Brown, Trisha Yearwood, and a host of other Prime Country superstars, the duology was good music for hard times, a cool breeze after a long year behind the mask. But as much fun as the Slappers records were and remain, Chicamacomico is what we’ve been exercising our patience over, and it’s the best this incarnation of American Aquarium– Barham, Shane Boeker, Alden Hedges, Rhett Huffman, Neil Jones, and Ryan Van Fleet– has ever sounded.

The title track follows an escape to the healing shores of Chicamacomico after “a year that damn near broke us clean in two.” I’m not inclined to speculate on its origins– we’ll hear the story when it’s ready to be shared– but like BJ Barham’s best songs, the owner of the too-real narrative of a husband in the wake of his partner’s miscarriage could be anyone– him, me, you– and no amount of ambiguity lessens the blow.

A balance of hope and heartbreak is the album’s defining feature with  “Little Things”, a jaunt through the glories of fatherhood buoyed by sweetly skewed piano, latching onto the former, and the challenges of marriage on “Just Close Enough” battling the latter.  Producer Brad Cook (Megafaun) was also at the helm of Barham’s solo effort, Rockingham (as well as the band’s ’15 album, Wolves), and if those tales let you into the city limits then the songs on Chicamacomico invite you in through the kitchen door and greet you like a trusted friend on a day when you need one the most.

“The First Year”, written in memory of BJ’s mother, Beverly, who passed away on New Year’s Eve 2019, is brutally stirring, uplifting, and devastating all at once, a Top Fiver song from nine studio albums worth of contenders. The majority of this new crop of tunes rely on straightforward band arrangements or cherry-picked instrumentation that smacks of intent as well ol’ fashioned experience. The Slappers sessions certainly made for enjoyable listening in the evenings around the dinner table (my 5-year-old thinks BJ’s version of “John Deere Green” is superior), but more, I think it was a chance for the members of AA to bond in a different way that maybe wasn’t possible in a pre-COVID realm of touring, family, and label obligations– and that shines on Chicamocomico.

“Built To Last” is a love song of the first order and fits neatly into American Aquarium canon– I can already feel a sold-out crowd swelling to belt out the chorus– while another ode, “Wildfire” recalls the layered ambiance of Lamentations, breaking the momentum somewhat and feeling like an afterthought sunk in the middle of the record. But even if it won’t rank among my favorite AA cuts, it never threatens to derail.

“The Things We Lost Along The Way” nudges mortality with nostalgia, and “Waking Up Echoes” wraps both arms around it, embracing the memory of a fallen friend with measures of regret and reluctant understanding. “The Hardest Thing”, possibly written from the perspective of BJ’s father, is again, Barham at his finest. His ability to wrangle his own emotions through song has always been a core strength, but his continually growing ability to tap into the hearts of others is what’s earned and retained admirers– especially among his peers– over the course of a sixteen-year career.

Chicamacomico ends with the anthemic “All I Needed”, a high note reveling in the power of the right song at the perfect moment, but honestly, the album doesn’t feel quite complete, as if there should still be one more heartbreak lurking. Of course, maybe that’s what we’ve been conditioned to expect from these pandemic years of isolation and doubt, and American Aquarium is making the case for a fresh start, one song at a time. I’m for it.

Chicamacomico is available to order now directly from the artists and through major digital platforms on June 10th!

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Thee Aaron Irons is a music commentator & radio personality for 100.9 The Creek where he hosts Americana Madness weekdays from 10am-3pm and Honky Tonk Hell, a Rockabilly/Rhythm & Blues retrospective that airs every Tuesday evening at 7pm. He lives in Macon, Georgia with his wife and daughter.