BJ Barham. Rockingham. At The Helm Records

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Sometimes an album comes along that just packs a punch, a visceral jolt to the emotions. One such is Rockingham, the first solo outing from American Aquarium’s front man BJ Barham. A carousing alt country rock band American Aquarium gained plaudits for their last release Wolves as Barham, reported at one point as a heavy drinker, was by then sober and married, settling down as he approached his 30s. Apparently he had been mulling over doing some solo songs but it was back in November last year when, marooned in Holland in the panic following the Paris terrorist attacks, he began scribbling the songs that ended up on the album, songs that reach back to his formative years.

Barham grew up in Reidsville in Rockingham County, North Carolina, a tobacco town that prospered until the American Tobacco Company shut up shop in the mid nineties. On Rockingham he delivers eight songs which he describes as “fictional narrative in a very real place,” You might consider it to be a hardscrabble equivalent to Lake Woebegone, the latter’s small town whimsy replaced by fly on the wall reportage of hard times. He forsakes the alt country rock of his band for a stripped back approach that only on occasion approaches a full band sound. Instead, his dirt stained voice is backed by his acoustic guitar, accordion, banjo, Dobro and spare keyboards and percussion, his narratives akin to those of Kris Kristofferson or John Prine.

The album opens with the sly country picking of American Tobacco Company, an encapsulation of the dead end drudgery of the factory worker, his hopes and dreams crushed by the 9-5, a theme pursued on the following title song with plaintive banjo and harmonica to the fore. Madeline hits an emotional chord as the protagonist cradles his newborn daughter and lists his advice for her future years. The song itself is cradled in a fine, almost spiritual, collision of guitar picking, stately piano and muted organ swells as his homegrown wisdom conjures up nuggets such as “never trust a man who does hard drugs in his thirties.” This intimacy is reversed on Unfortunate Kind where Barham strips it all back to voice and guitar as he inhabits the persona of a bereaved man holding onto memories of his 39 years of marriage, his courtship, life together and a descent into illness and death.

O’Lover is one of the fuller arrangements here as Barham recounts the tale of a farmer driven to robbery while Road To Nowhere almost skips along, its jauntiness at odds with the romantic desertion sung about. Here Barham hits the heights on a song that bears true comparison with the best of the troubadours, Guy Clark included, as he delivers a perfectly formed marriage of words and music, a song that will dwell in your mind. Reidsville is a fine capture of small town living, teenage cars, early marriage and married doldrums all wound around wheezy accordion and slinky Dobro. The album ends with the cracked and dusty Water In The Well, a rural equivalent of the opening blue collar worker’s dilemma as a farmer contemplates suicide while seeking an answer from his bible for a way out of his woes. Again Barham delivers this with an emotional punch, his voice straining with desperation, devoid of hope as the music haltingly shadows his dilemma.

Time will tell as to whether Rockingham will be considered in the same vein as an album such as Guy Clark’s Old No. 1 but in the meantime it’s probably the best of its kind this year.

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