“you’re a two pack habit with a southern accent/ I’m a pearl snap poet with bad tattoos”- BJ Barham
Burn. Flickr. Die. opens up with a gnarly southern blues guitar tone ringing out over a persistent rhythm section. Frontman BJ Barham’s first lines are “I was born in the valley of the Cape Fear River, about a 30 minute drive from to south of Virginia/ the North Star of this great state, at least that’s what the sign said.” Remind you of anyone? How about producer Jason Isbell’s former band, the Drive-By Truckers? That’s not to say that Burn. Flickr. Die. sounds like a DBT record or even a Jason Isbell record really. It actually sounds like American Aquarium; the best version of themselves yet, on their sixth record in nearly as many years. But whether its happenstance or Isbell’s steady hand at the control, the record paints an evocative picture of the south and the struggle to escape, which are themes reminiscent of DBT at his best. Hood and Cooley, though, preferred blue collar protagonists; Barham on the other hand is still finding plenty of material on his whiskey soaked bar napkins that substitute for a diary.
In the past, Barham has failed to find a good middle ground in his writing. He’s always had a knack for one-liners, but sometimes seemed to miss painting a larger picture. The American Aquarium debut Antique Hearts had some great songs (several of which would pop up again on the follow-up), but it wasn’t really representative of the band’s live sound. The Bible and the Bottle found the band reaching for too much production and had too much filler. The EP that followed, Bones, was recorded live to tape and was the best recording of the band prior to Burn. Flickr. Die. With its soulful sound and Ben Nichols-esque songs, the EP burst at the seams with life. Still the band hadn’t captured their monster of a live sound in the studio. The release of Dances for the Lonely found the band getting closer to the mark with a handful of songs that were and are live favorites (“Katherine Belle”, “Ain’t Going To the Bar Tonight”, and the legendary “I Hope He Breaks Your Heart”). However, Dances also had its share of filler and found Barham cycling through the same bar room band themes on its best songs. Small Town Hymns attempted to correct that with its singer songwriter focus, but unlike many critics I didn’t think it was Barham or the band’s best.
What makes Burn. Flickr. Die. pretty easily the best of the bunch is two things: maturity and consistency. When Barham sings “we are no different than the neon lights/ you can turn us on and stay up all night/ we do what we can, we put up a fight/ we burn too long and flicker and die,” it’s no longer a gleeful lyric. Barham calls this a consequence record. It’s a theme he’s attempted before with moderate success, but 6 years of near continuous touring seem to have taken their toll and given Barham a weariness that feels authentic. Barham still manages to find the joy of bar room boozing, but songs like “Casualties” and the title track underline that boozing with a sobering reality. The one night stands of the road aren’t quite as joyful as “Katherine Belle” might have indicated. Barham confronts the reality of the situation, noting he has a “telephone full of women with a city beside their name.” These women are harmless sparks “and these harmless sparks, these harmless sparks/ are gonna leave me in the dark.”
The quality and consistency of Barham’s lyrics this time around are matched only by the band’s performances. You can’t give too much credit to Mr. Isbell and whoever engineered this, because the record is easily the best sounding of the American Aquarium catalog. The band have always been road warriors worthy of mythical status, but Isbell and Co. finally captured it on tape. From the bluesy opener, to the Mellencamp folk rocker “St. Marys”, to the haunting ballad “Northern Lights”, and the Richards-Jagger-esque closer “Saturday Nights,” the record sounds both bright and organic.
Ok, it’s time for last thoughts. Props to the band for re-inventing “Lonely Ain’t Easy,” a stand-out song from the Bones EP (note: BJ I feel for you about the Beatles and Stones, but I wouldn’t fret too much over those Eagles records). Also HUGE PROPS for covering the Backsliders “Abe Lincoln.” It’s a great song and hopefully people will discover the two excellent records by the Backsliders, who were contemporaries of Whiskeytown in the Raleigh, NC scene of the late 90’s. The cover is tactful nod to American Aquairum’s Raleigh forbearers and serves as a metaphorical passing of the torch.
About the author: Specializes in Dead, Drunk, and Nakedness..... Former College Radio DJ and Current Craft Beer Nerd