Album Review – BJ Barham’s ‘Rockingham’

Author: Leon Blair

​Do you know those bands or individual artists that you keep saying you need to check out but unfortunately never get around to? I’ve honestly probably said it at least a million times by now. It’s even harder when you’re a blogger considering your main focus is usually on the music that’s coming out right now and the artists fighting for your attention at this very moment. Finding time to take a break and listen to those other artists can be hard.

As you’ve probably guessed by now, American Aquarium is one of those bands that I just unfortunately am not as familiar with as I’d like to be. I heard their 2015 album, Wolves and actually really enjoyed that. Between other life events and other music vying for my attention however, I’d be lying if I said it didn’t get lost in the shuffle throughout the year. That being said, I knew that lead singer, BJ Barham’s upcoming solo studio album, Rockingham would be my chance to redeem myself, especially when I heard that it would be a deeply personal album, one that was inspired by the November 2015 Bataclan attack.

​I walked into Rockingham not really knowing what to expect and found one of 2016’s best albums yet. Make no mistake, BJ Barham crafted a near masterpiece with Rockingham. It’s an album that, while not completely autobiographical certainly relates to the people and personal events that occurred in BJ’s life growing up. It’s an album that has a distinct Southern feel to it all while exploring the struggles that come with living in a small town along with having to watch dreams die. You read that right. Rockingham isn’t meant to show you a fairytale ending, it’s meant to deliver hard hitting stories.

The title track doesn’t start off this album but I believe it’s placed near the beginning to really help begin to frame the overall narrative of this album. Like BJ says, he’s going back to his hometown of Rockingham, North Carolina to help unearth his past and to help bring to light what living in a small town can truly be like. Sure, country radio will have you believe it’s all fun and games, but eventually reality has to kick in, which is exactly what BJ helps to show us.
​Songs like “American Tobacco Company”, “O’ Lover”, and “Reidsville” help to expose harsh realities such as working all day for not enough money to support your family, or robbing a gas station just to be able to survive. Sure, “Reidsville” along with “Road To Nowhere” and “Water In The Well” may be previous American Aquarium songs, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be dusted off and redone for the sake of this album, in addition to fitting in with the theme of this album effortlessly. As I said before, “Reidsville” fits the overall album theme completely with its look at a couple who fell in love young and broke. Even as we reach the end with “Water In The Well”, we still don’t get that fairytale ending we want because that’s not how life works. The man in this song is struggling to find a reason to move on, mostly because he knows that his work will never be enough to provide for himself or the people he loves.

While there are no fairytale endings on this album, that doesn’t mean this album doesn’t expose some crevices of hope. After all, life has its ups and downs, why shouldn’t the album? Our male narrator may seem to settle for a life of broken dreams in “American Tobacco Company”, but a song like “Madeline” shows there’s hope. As a man speaks to his daughter and offers her life advice, we see that there’s still hope for the younger generation. They still have time to plan those dreams and make them happen. It’s too late for us but at least they still have a chance to escape the rat race. At least we want to believe there is. Even if that’s not how you see it it’s easy to believe that at the very least, despite all the hardships life can throw at you, having family members support you and be there for you can be the one thing you need to keep going.

That whole theme of finding the good in life really is accentuated further on the highlight (if I even want to signal just one), “Unfortunate Kind” where a couple finally makes it in life to the point where they have enough to support themselves and at least be happy. Even as the wife gets sick and eventually dies, something that completely wrecks the husband, he still echoes, “ain’t it funny how it all works out? Ain’t it funny how the unfortunate kind get lucky somehow?” At that point in the song you’re probably wondering how any sense of relief could be expressed there, and yet it’s all because of that theme of looking at the good rather than the bad. Looking back on a life well lived with the person you love and knowing that it all truly happened instead of blaming the world for that loved one’s passing shows that theme. After all, despite all the struggles we face in life, it’s the good moments that we remember anyway, which is why it’s important to look for them.

The stories of Rockingham truly are works of poetry that say so much in a short amount of time. When it comes to Rockingham’s production however, things aren’t quite as boisterous. Stripped down is the way Rockingham operates, and hey, what better way to tell your story than to sing it from its core? Unlike other stripped down projects, Rockingham never once feels like it’s plodding on or “boring” due to some very nice banjo, harmonica, dobro and even some pedal steel sprinkled throughout all parts of this album. In other words, giving it some flavor. Really, for me it just speaks to the level of commitment that BJ took to this project. I’m struggling to find the words to describe how much the production truly matches the overall atmosphere of the lyrics on this album. Music is meant to best serve the lyric, and that’s exactly what’s done here.

Sure, the full band of American Aquarium may not get credit for Rockingham, but that’s because they’re BJ’s stories. Stories that come from experience and more importantly, the heart. You could easily make a complaint that this album is too short, but why bother adding more than what’s truly needed? Sure, it’s only eight tracks, but each of those eight tracks serve a purpose and help connect the album nicely. What more can you ask for?

If you can’t tell by now this album absolutely blew me away. I’m still not sure if I’m always going to be a fan of BJ’s rougher vocal tone but I’m not going to deny the near-masterpiece that Rockingham is. Again, its main theme is a look on the realities of small town life, but the stories immersed within speak to so much more. It’s absolutely brilliant in its execution. Honestly it makes you wish that BJ had been able to contribute a song to Dave Cobb’s Southern Family project earlier this year. Other projects may be flashier or garner more commercial success this year, but I truly believe that Rockingham should garner only the highest critical acclaim.

(9/10)

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