Steel Train formed three years ago with singer/guitarist/pianist Jack Antonoff inspired by the light, airy harmonies of a certain Nash, a certain Crosby, and a certain Stills. And with producer Stephen Barncard (Cocker, CSN, and the Grateful Dead) at the helm for their sophomore album, you are bound to get half of the melodic pop of yesteryear that CSN mastered with some of the ambling, jam-based tunes that Jerry and company did in their prime. The end result is something that might be an acquired taste in some circles, but if it whets your appetite you’re in for the long haul.
And this is indeed a long haul, a nearly 70-minute haul. “Bitter Love” gets it going in the vein of classic Blue Rodeo, circa Five Days in May, a folksy-roots-country arrangement that takes its time and is an enjoyable ride. The authenticity of the music is only given more weight thanks to former Flying Burrito Brother Gene Parson adding some deft and polished pedal steel licks throughout. The brushes used on drums don’t hurt either for this train riding, troubadour kind of effort. “Road Song” is slower and sounds like the Vienna Boys Choir churning out a Handsome Family song with a jug band in the orchestra pit a quaint but pretty toe-tapper that has some mandolin sprinkled around the chorus. While it’s not quite the classic that “Truckin’” was, it’s not too far from the mark in terms of quality or musicianship. Steel Train is tapping into some synergy here and decides to see what they can do with it.
Perhaps the biggest surprise though is how the band has been able to work with famed musician David Grisman. In fact, this is the first time Grisman and Barncard have worked together since the Grateful Dead’s album American Beauty. Grisman adds some instrumentation to “Dig”, a song that comes off as a cross between CSN and the Beach Boys with its island flavor. Scott Irby Ranniar adds harmony vocals here for parts, giving it more gloss. But when the band decides to explore its jam side, the results are mixed at best and just sheer ugly at worst. “The Lee Baby Simms Show: Episode 1” is a Latin/Salsa-fuelled song that has you anticipating that Santana’s guitar will enter the fray at any moment. They resort to the same style later on the second half of this song (“The Lee Baby Simms Show: Episode 2”). Fortunately, it’s more of a breather to span the gap between “Dig” and the alt.country-rooted “Wake Your Eyes”, which Antonoff nails right off the bat. However, the tune gets too funky or Los Lonely Boys-ish for its own good. And it becomes a mediocre roots-meets-psychedelic tune that sounds dated. “Two O’Clock” is promising yet then goes into passé or cliché areas about smoking hash and relationships that are insincere, over a hushed, sparse musical backdrop. It sounds like bliss though, compared to “Grace”, which is wedged too far in the band’s musical left field to pull off. Theatrical and epic by simply being droning and saturated in melancholia, Antonoff sounds like he’s completing a so-so Meat Loaf or Queen song.
When the group sticks to what they do best, they do it the best. This is exemplified in the downbeat but infectious roots tune “Catch You on the Other Side”, which brings to mind the Band to a certain extent before taking on a jazzy, folksy hue that gels instantly. However, they again go back to the jam-band mentality that is best left to the String Cheese Incident ilk. “Tickle Your Toes” is an exercise in noodling of the highest Phil Lesh-like order, with nothing happening and the number going nowhere very quickly. When Jack Johnson comes off as Lou Reed, well you’ve gone a tad too far. The highlight of this record comes in “Blue”, which hits the mark, falling somewhere between Ryan Adams, Wilco, and Jayhawks but with a dreamy harmony that threads the song together. The album has its moments, both precious and predictable.