Everywhere off Hatteras Island the sounds of Chicamacomico are invented, like a drunken incantation of wine or maybe a tongue twister – try saying it ten times faster. But as a former lifeboat station built in 1874 on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, the name is perhaps the perfect metaphor and title for American Aquarium’s ninth studio album.
The Old North State is tattooed on the bones of leader BJ Barham, who never lived more than two hours from his hometown of Reidsville. But, more than that, what better way to represent an album about loss than a place built to save the lives of shipwrecked sailors and passengers? The song as a kind of salute is something Barham celebrates in “All I Needed,” the record’s final track, and it shows what he hopes this album can do for the band’s established and growing fan base. Sometimes when we’re drowning, music keeps us afloat.
“When these massive life changes happen, we feel like we’re the only ones dealing with these issues. Talking about them openly, naming them, and dragging them into the light makes them a little less daunting. , a bit more conquering,” Barham said. “I hope this album serves as a balm to anyone who has experienced this kind of loss over the past few years. I hope it makes them feel a little less isolated and disconnected. I want them to know someone is going through the exact same shit and they’re not alone.
For anyone who has followed the band over the past sixteen years, Chicamacomique feels stripped down and stripped down in its instrumentation. Away from that early mix of Southern rock and punk, there are few to no moments where the band steps on the pedal and lets the tires smoke in their wake. The orchestration here is dialed back, leaving the lyrics bare front and center. It reminds RockinghamBarham’s 2016 solo album, and this may be partly the result of producer Brad Cook, who produced both albums as well as the band’s 2015 record wolves. But it’s probably more a sign of the sound maturing and expanding the reach of a songwriter now fully comfortable and confident in his own skin.
“When you’re young you want to play everything loud and fast and I think that comes, at least in part, from uncertainty. I hadn’t fully regained my voice at that time, so the louder and faster, the less likely someone was to hear what I was saying. The more comfortable I was with my “voice”, the more confident I became in my lyrical abilities. I’m no longer afraid of the lyrics that remain. front because I have confidence in the writing of the songs. The band can always break away and cover a song, but they are not expected to do all the heavy lifting these days.
With tracks dealing with personal loss – the loss of his mother and grandmother, the loss of a child, the loss of youth and time and the creative spark that drives him – there was plenty of work to do. Barham has never been one to shy away from obscurity or the tougher subjects. In fact, it always seemed to be where he found his footing and thrived.
In “The First Year”, he recounts the loss of his mother and the first year without her. It’s a really brilliant piece of songwriting using the holidays as a springboard to work on a period of time, but somehow it manages to never pull a punch or get over it. away from his own vulnerability. He sings of his father suffering this loss, “Like a sandcastle I watched this mountain of a man crumble when they laid his queen to rest”.
Likewise, “The Things We Lost Along The Way,” tackles head-on themes of mortality and regret, the nostalgia that so often accompanies aging. With harmonies by Kate Rhudy, Barham’s vocals and lyrics sound as if they could have been written and sung by Townes Van Zandt, until that drop in tone with the last word of the line. And just like Townes, Barham always seemed to walk headlong into that darkness with fearless, unwavering tenacity.
“The darkest corners of my writing are where I think people find the most light and that’s a really powerful feeling as a writer. It’s what allows me to operate in this world and to not get bogged down,” he explained. “Knowing that I’m going into the dark not just for me, but for anyone who’s willing to listen, makes it so much easier to face those dark emotions head on. “
The subjects remain heavy on the major part of the disc. With ‘Waking Up The Echoes’ he writes about the loss of an old friend to suicide. And yet, he always manages to find the balance. Light always seems to stabilize darkness. Sometimes it’s complete, as is the case with “Little Things,” a playful song about transitioning into life as a stay-at-home dad. Other times, the joy and hope are simpler and more subtle, like the closing lines of “The Hardest Thing,” a song centered on a grieving husband’s conversations with his late wife: “Before I left , one last thing, the flowers you planted in the spring, even though my thumb isn’t green, I think they’ll be fine.
Few songwriters swing the hammer as hard and precise as Barham and it speaks to the humility and confidence of his bandmates – Shane Boeker, guitar; Neil Jones, pedal steel; Rhett Huffman, keys; Ryan Van Fleet, drums, and Alden Hedges on bass – may they take the back seat and allow his storytelling to carry us home. With a busy tour the rest of the year and a roster of brass-knuckled bangers that have always burned like wildfire, everyone is sure to get their fair share of time behind the wheel.
But when it comes to this record, be grateful for the subtlety, the calm and the quiet. Be grateful for the space it gives us to just feel human. For ten songs, Chicamacomique will keep your head above water.