Country Jukebox Jury: American Aquarium and Manny Blu

American Aquarium – Slappers, Bangers and Certified Twangers, Volume 2

In July 2021 I loved the first volume of ten 90s country covers by BJ Barham and his band of merry men. It turns out that there are ten more for the holiday season which once again include the familiar and the long-lost classics.

The familiar include Rhett Akins’ That Ain’t My Truck (which was referenced last year by Thomas Rhett in What’s Your Country Song) and the Mark Chesnutt hit Bubba Shot The Jukebox, a song about a ‘justifiable homicide’ which has some jaw’s harp and verses in three different keys.

Nor is there any surprise to see him tackle Independence Day and Strawberry Wine, whose original versions have never been bettered and are now classed as Classic Country. BJ changes the key of the latter from D-flat to F major (moving it up two whole tones), which gives it more of a lounge-country feel. Going gender-blind is smart too, as the melody is terrific even if it’s a man singing about ‘thirsting for knowledge’.

Less known to country newbies like me who missed the 90s are songs like Radney Foster’s heartbreak shuffle Nobody Wins (‘scars take time to heal’) and John Anderson’s Money in the Bank, which was co-written by Bob DePiero and is a good twist on an uptempo love song because ‘your love’s better’ than any boats or Z-28 Camaros he can afford. I gotta have more cowbell, though!!

Small Town Saturday Night, the Hal Ketchum hit, converts the twang of the original to a New Jersey barroom rocker. In an era where there are very few women coming to prominence, BJ picks songs by three of them: Lorrie Morgan (Watch Me, which is very empowering in a Reba sort of way), Wynonna (the punchy No One Else On Earth) and Pam Tillis, whose song Maybe It Was Memphis becomes a power ballad in the hands of BJ and the band.

I wonder how many country hits of 2022 will mention William Faulkner or Tennessee Williams, as that one does, but I bet it rhymes with ‘Nero’.

Manny Blu – Country Punk EP

On the final day of 2021, Manny Blu releases five new songs that follow those on his Devil EP. As with Devil, the tracks have been rolled out individually across several months and have been collected in a project. This may be the future of how acts release music, as ‘courses’ rather than banquets. They accurately convey the EP’s title in that they are rhythm-driven, anthemic tunes with country themes.

Doin Fine, which opens the EP, begins with a low bass rumble over which Manny adds a lyric about ‘leaving home, kicking up the dust’. It’s a carpe diem rocking song about living life with good forward momentum. I like the line about going to a bar with ‘our friends who we met last night’.

95 is a fist-pumping reminiscin’ song with a set of fine riffs which builds to an enormous chorus about how ‘someday you’re gonna be grown up’ but not to forget those days. The song takes a more melancholic turn in the middle eight where Manny’s belle leaves, ‘said she had somewhere else to go’.

Balance has Manny admit that he’s ‘born to fly but afraid of heights’, which is a catch-22 if ever there was one. The production is terrific and pushes Manny’s vocals to the front of the mix, as on Prove Me Wrong which is more pop-punk than country, with the ‘chucka-chucka’ guitar throbs and an appearance in the lyric from Jared Leto.

Too Bad So Sad, a solo write from Matt Lukasiewicz, is an acoustic break-up song with plenty of realism from Manny (‘it never should have gone this far’). I like the singsong nature of the way Manny sings the title of the song, and how the EP ends with a lighters-aloft singalong which explodes in its final minute, as I hoped it would, in firework drums and some freewheeling electric guitar.

It’s more punk than country, but Manny is country at heart.

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