In a memorable scene from The Wrestler, Mickey Rourke is drinking in a bar with Marisa Tomei and listening to Ratt’s “Round and Round”. Growing nostalgic for the heyday of ’80s party metal, Randy “The Ram” dismisses the entire next decade (“The nineties sucked”), blaming Kurt Cobain for coming along and ruining everyone’s good time by making it uncool to smile at rock concerts. It was the funniest line in the film, mostly because, even if you don’t agree with the Ram’s version of rock history, everyone knows a few classic-rock true-believers who are still wondering why they don’t make them like Journey and Van Halen anymore since everyone seems to love those songs. Where have all the good times gone?
The truth is, the Nirvana-killed-hair-metal theory has been largely debunked although it will likely go down alongside Yoko-broke-up-the-Beatles on the list of rock’s great revisionist over-generalizations. The truth is, hair metal was already imploding under its own ridiculousness; amid all that pleather, pyro, and power balladry, something had to give. The stake was already in the pop-metal heart; Nirvana just gave it a hard thwack for good measure. So while Warrant and Winger were wiped off the face of the earth by the rise of grunge, one has to wonder how hair metal could have survived by evolving in a way that both overcame its excesses but held on to the Ratt-ical elements that rocked the Ram’s world.
Okay, here it comes. Perhaps the Ram could get behind Train and their shiny new record, Save Me, San Francisco. It’s a sound that bands like Bon Jovi and Def Leppard spent the ’90s looking for. Those bands survived long-term by cutting their hair, yes, but mostly by being too big to fail, yet what they tried to do post-Nirvana was ease off the overindulgent spand-excess of the ’80s while maintaining the nostalgic, arena-rattling fun that classic-rockers hold dear. Train are as close as it comes these days to that kind of middle-ground band, one that has zilch to do with the angst and grinding guitars of the last two decades of modern rock and instead embraces big, beaming rock-star archetypes. On the other hand, they’ve left out the guitar solo — that relic of the Dial MTV days — and they’ve more or less caved to the present-day normal-guy rock look, sporting just enough leather and mousse to avoid being mistaken for high school teachers.
By taking such a safe route, however — neo-classic rock with limited ostentation — Train have been subsequently boring enough, illustrated by their generic name, that they’ve been relegated mostly to Adult Contemporary playlists. Still, this formula has worked well enough; no one needs to weep much for Train — they’ve sold millions, won Grammys, toured the world, etc., and singles “Drops of Jupiter” and “Calling All Angels” were pretty inescapable a decade ago. Still, Train never got Bon Jovi big nor did they garner all that much respect from either critics or the the Rams of the world, despite some impressive numbers, and by mid-decade this Train had seemingly run out of track. 2006’s For Me, It’s You stalled and produced no charting singles.
Save Me, San Francisco, the first Train album in nearly four years, stands a good chance of changing the band’s legacy. It’s their biggest, most fun album ever, full of giant, rounder-than-round choruses, goofy lyrics, and drippy romantic ballads. In other words, it’s a classic rock album, one that sounds like the band decided to jettison any attempt to be Aughties cool and instead got back to time-tested, amphitheater-rocking formulas. Lead single “Hey, Soul Sister” is racing up the charts, already their second biggest single ever, so Train are scratching a legitimate rock-and-roll itch.
One reason this record will find a sizeable audience, by the way, is that Train are one token fiddle away from being a contemporary country band. The answer to that question posed by the Ram — whatever happened to the ’70s-’80s arena rock that everyone loved? — is simple: They call it country music now. Big, cheesy rock songs with walloping drums and fast guitar solos, about partying and getting laid, sung by pretty people wearing ripped jeans and scarves is alive and selling well … on country radio. If Train really want to sell out arenas, a minor adjustment would send them Darius Rucker’s way, who would tell them that the waters in Nashville are just fine.
Of course, the face, neck, head, breast, and chest of Train is singer Patrick Monahan, who, despite the band’s successes, remains one of rock’s most overlooked lead vocalists. Monahan has the kind of pipes that would have fit in fine had Train come out in ’85 on the Sunset Strip. (He started out in a Led Zeppelin cover band, and there aren’t a whole lot of guys truly up for that job.) He’s a durable vocalist with very impressive range — try singing along with him — and he’s singing with more power and clarity than ever on the new record. He sings so high throughout the album, in fact, that by the end, you feel like your eardrums are being sandpapered, but it’s an impressive performance, and anyone who has seen Train live will tell you that Monahan flat-out delivers (and he’s recently gotten Mick Jagger-level skinny).
As if to signal Train’s intent to swipe wide at folks raised on rock radio, the band fills Save Me, San Francisco with enough ’70s-’80s pop-culture references to make the Beastie Boys jealous. Sonny and Cher, “Like a Virgin”, Mr. Mister, Love Connection, Winger (hey!), My Fair Lady, the Doobie Brothers, etc., and that’s just in the first few songs. “I Got You”, in fact, is a half-cover of the Doobies’ “Black Water”, an idea that sounds like cheating but which ends up working fairly well and might do for Train this summer what the “Sweet Home Alabama” mashup did for Kid Rock last summer. The lyrics to “I Got You” are daffy: “Like Sonny and Cher, except I’ll be there for you!” — so then how are you like them? Then again, you’re not exactly supposed to over-think classic-rock lyrics.
“I Got You” caps a winning opening hat trick on the record, along with “Hey, Soul Sister” and the opening title track, which namechecks a tourist’s guide to Train’s hometown: the Golden Gate Bridge, cable cars, Alcatraz, Highway 1, the Fillmore (it rhymes with “feel more”), the Tenderloin. It’s a sunny handclapper, and if “Hey, Soul Sister” has sparked an unlikely comeback for Train, this singalong boogie ought to be the one that keep the party going.
It’s pretty much downhill from there, starting with the sloggy “Parachutes”, a tune that dips 3 Doors Down into the post-grunge muck. It has a relatively catchy hook, but its thick wash of guitars and screwy metaphor do the song in. Tellingly, “Parachutes” is one of two songs produced by Gregg Wattenberg, who cowrote it. The rest of Save Me was produced by Martin Terefe, who gives the album a bright, jangly finish, wisely easing off of too many embellishments, likely showing more restraint than notorious futzer Brendan O’Brien, who produced Train’s previous records, would have.
There are other highlights, namely a couple of the slower numbers. “This Ain’t Goodbye” is the power ballad, another one that could be a country smash, sounding nearly identical to a Rascal Flatts song, and Monahan finds a nice vocal melody, doubled by the piano line. Finally, after a few forgettable midtempo songs, the record ends with the acoustic “Marry Me”, a song that completes an unfailingly romantic set of songs, as Monahan, now 40, celebrates settling down (“You wear white, and I’ll wear out the words ‘I love you’”), or at least makes a play for the reception-dance market. It’s just another way Train cover their bases on Save Me, San Francisco, an album that won’t bring back yesteryear, but there’s not much on pop radio like this, and guys like the Ram will take what they can get.