Sorting through music files while glancing at another critic’s year-end list of favorites caused me to zero in on these two gems. One I’d initially, unfairly dismissed. The other I’ve happily discovered. Ray Wylie Hubbard’s songs of raw, rowdy twang can sting like a Texas-sized scorpion, and elicit reactions from deep thought to a snicker to an assault on the senses. He’s about as far removed as the soil is to the sky from American Aquarium’s lavish presentations of rural living, and the resultant personal and professional foibles in these highly perplexing times in these “United” States. But country music connects them.
American Aquarium’s BJ Barham writes of falling, confessing, rolling with the punches, being pissed off, and rising triumphantly. He positively electrifies his audience with these “Lamentations” in song, making every one of his words count. A recovering alcoholic, Barham named his band from a lyric in a Wilco song that refers — presumably — to downing an aquarium-full. Here, within the easygoing tick-tock rhythms of “Six Years Come September,” Barham sings of the tough nature of the healing process, but how much tougher it is to look back at his behaviors. The song’s melody belies the pouring out of his pain. Barham sings in a voice full of leathery character, at times calling to mind both Neil Diamond and Bruce Springsteen, but he is his own man.
“Me + Mine (Lamentations)” opens the program delicately, building in intensity as Barham’s frustration and anger boils over at the loss of the American dream. American Aquarium stimulates the grand nature of the heritage Barham sings of with a polished, expert musical performance. Barham doesn’t give up the fight, though, or the hope. An accent of pedal steel helps illuminate “Before the Dogwood Blooms,” a moving song about hard work, and familial dedication and support. There’s jukebox perfection there, and also in “Starts with You,” a love song in the mainstream-rocking Mellencamp realm. “How Wicked I Was” packs the most profound emotional punch on this album full of them. Barham addresses being a father with unbridled joy, tempered only by the regret of his little girl one day knowing what he’d been.
On the other side of the coin, and America, Ray Wylie Hubbard lets the chips fall where they may, his poetic lyrics tumbling out of him in an addictive drawl. Those “Co-Starring” with Hubbard help him envelop his thoughts in dusty Texas melodies that alternately slink, brood, and rage in threads of country, blues, and rock and roll. Every friend present, from the young, aggressive Tyler Bryant & The Shakedown on “R.O.C.K,” to the elder-bluegrass-statesman Peter Rowan on “Hummingbird,” merge with Hubbard, and one another, track after track, like the blood and the sweat of one of those days.
Who but Hubbard could gather a band comprised of Joe Walsh, Don Was, Chris Robinson, and Ringo Starr? Ringo — still the star of the beat — nonchalantly kicks that killer band into the slip-sliding groove of “Bad Trick,” the opening rocker that makes a mockery of the slip-ups we’re all guilty of. With “Rock Gods,” featuring guitarist Aaron Lee Tasjan, Hubbard contemplates himself – within a hard, Byrds-y melody — in terms of several of his bygone heroes. Hubbard and The Cadillac Three then play wickedly in “Fast Left Hand,” finishing in a fever pitch of screeching guitars before he and Pam Tillis conjure Mississippi John Hurt in a gentle country-blues named for the blues icon. Then, with the ladies of Larkin Poe, it’s bone-crushing grooves wrapped in swampland slide for “Rattlesnake Shakin’ Woman,” which slyly references Peter Green and Fleetwood Mac in one of its neat verses.
Ray Wylie Hubbard and American Aquarium each shape country music differently to their needs. Their uniquely powerful songs offer both a salve and an escape.
- Two That Almost Got Away
- American Aquarium – ‘Lamentations’ – New West Records
- Ray Wylie Hubbard – ‘Co-Starring’ – Big Machine Records