The Word Alive
The Cellar, Southampton, UK - 1/12
Written by: CM on 11/05/2012 00:06:39
I can't say I've ever been a fan of Train, nor have I, until now, ever listened to a full-length album by them, but that hasn't stopped their long line of pop singles from managing to constantly pervade my everyday existence. From their breakout hits ("Meet Virginia" and "Drops of Jupiter," which were all over the place in my radio-listening days), to the singles from their third record, "My Private Nation," which actually managed to make it onto a few mixes I burned for myself back in my pre-album listening phase ("Calling All Angels," "When I Look to the Sky"), all the way to the incredibly annoying cultural ubiquity of "Hey Soul Sister" back in 2010, which gave the band a renaissance of sorts, Train has managed to stick around, even as many of their early contemporaries have diminished in presence and disappeared. At very least, the San Francisco natives deserve a commendation for not only surviving, but thriving in a decade that largely rejected their brand of pop-rock. And despite the fact that I've never really liked this band, or that lead singer Pat Monahan's voice has always had a strong knack for getting on my nerves, the band's tendency to tour with some of my favorite guys making music today (Butch Walker, Matt Nathanson, Mat Kearney), has recently made me wonder if there's more to them than I thought; more than just the singles, at least.
"California 37," the band's sixth full length LP, finds them in the wake of their most successful hit ever, basking in the same brand of sunny hooks and shiny pop-production that made "Hey Soul Sister" such a success. And really, it's not so bad. Make no mistake, Train's music is just about as disposable as ever, but songs like opener "This'll Be My Year," which plays like a modern-day update on Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire" (complete with a massive refrain-chorus), or the sweeping mid-tempo balladry of "We Were Made For This," which features one of Monahan's best vocal performances to date (at least that I've heard), as well as an explosive guitar solo mid-way through and a bizarre but atmospheric bagpipe outro, are pleasing and well-executed. If those two songs are among the best on the album, then it's hard to not see Butch Walker, who lends his writing talents to both, as one of the prime reasons. Walker, who has made a name for himself writing and producing for the likes of Avril Lavigne, Pink, and Weezer, knows his way around a hook better than just about anyone in the business today, and his fingerprints are all over this album, whether he's receiving writing credits or production kudos. Walker produced half the record himself, and shared duties with Espionage (the production duo who manned the boards for "Hey Soul Sister") for the rest, and throughout, he brings something to Train's music that has been lacking in the past. His presence is palpable on album closer "When the Fog Roles In," which recalls the band's '90s alt-rock roots, thanks to its piano-led orchestration and atmospheric flourishes of organ, brass, and guitar, or on the second single "Feels Good At First," whose pleasant acoustic-guitar loop and folk-pop aesthetic make for a song that wouldn't be so unwelcome as a dominating radio force.
These songs were written and recorded while the band (and Walker) toured in support of their last album (2009's "Save Me San Francisco"), and as a result, they have a looser, more spontaneous feel to them than is usually present in modern pop music (Train's included). The cover depicts a classic car roaring down a sunlit highway, and that's fitting for a record that would be perfectly well suited for a spur-of-the-moment summertime road-trip: these songs are drenched in the kind of sunsoaked melodies that have formed the backbone for many a brilliant summer record, with hooks the size of houses and dynamic instrumentation. Songs like the pop-countrified "Bruises," complete with a guest vocal from country singer Ashley Monroe, or "Sing Together," which is essentially a rewrite of "Hey Soul Sister," right down to the chord progression and ukulele accompaniment, are poised to take over your local radio station this summer, while even the less commercially viable options are loaded with pop-sheen, from the Mariachi-influenced verses of "50 Ways to Say Goodbye" (and the skyscraping chorus they explode into), or the whistle-led "You Can Finally Meet My Mom," which is a lot of fun despite dumb lyrics.
But even despite Walker's welcome presence and a lot of enjoyable songs, Train are still the same band they've always been, and "California 37" does end up falling into a lot of the same traps that have plagued most of their singles for the past fifteen years. Monahan stumbles upon a sincere line here and there, but for the most part, his lyrics are gimmicky and dumb, and in the worst cases, completely nonsensical. His songwriting partners (Walker and the guys from Espionage, among others) help to temper that habit on the album's best songs, but it's allowed to run wild on many of the album's more "commercial" tracks, and as a result, those end up bringing down a record that I actually could have seen myself listening to a lot this summer. First single "Drive By" is a particularly egregious offender ("When you move me, everything is groovy/They don't like it, sue me, mmm way you do me"), but drivel like "Mermaid" and the title track don't really help the band's case either. Monahan's pop music clichés and unfunny pop culture references extend beyond those three tracks, but in most cases, the melodies are strong enough to render them harmless. When Train is trying to play towards today's pop-music trends, they sound awkward and strained, and the results are as grating as the worst singles the genre has to offer; when they play it straight, they land somewhere between Counting Crows-lite and sugary pop singer/songwriters like Jason Mraz and Gavin DeGraw. Neither version is transcendent by any means, but overall, "California 37" is a pleasant surprise from a band I've written off more times than I can count: it's disposable and largely forgettable, and it's not going to get anywhere near my end-of-the-year list, but it's fun, and every once in awhile, that's enough.
Download: "Bruises," "We Were Made For This," "When The Fog Roles In"
For The Fans Of: Gavin DeGraw, The Script, Jason Mraz
Release Date 12.04.2012