In Defense of Train Not Being Nearly as Bad as You Might Think

California 27

Full disclosure: My favorite type of music is R&B. Over the past few years, jazz has worked its way into a strong No. 2, though my heart and ears have always preferred the sound of a great horn section, a funky bass line, an organ and powerful backing vocal harmonies, over every other musical combination. I’m convinced that the single greatest concert I’ll ever see was performed by the Overtone Quartet, featuring the great Dave Holland and one of the buzziest names in recent jazz memory, Jason Moran.

Unfortunately for me, that concert also took place just months ago, thus forcing me to come to terms with the notion that from this point on — at the ripe old age of 28, mind you — I will never be in a room with a better set of musicians, seeing a more competent display of performance, ever again. 

My favorite musical memory to date was making a week-long trip with a dear friend of mine that took us to Nashville, Tennessee, Clarksdale, Mississippi, and finally Memphis, Tennessee, where our arrival at 926 East McLemore Avenue and the Stax Records studio provided me with one of the biggest thrills of my life. Walking the same halls as Booker T. and his MGs, Eddie Floyd, Mavis Staples, Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Johnny Taylor, Steve Cropper, the Bar-Kays, Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton, among many, many others, remains one of the very few memories I can look upon without even the slightest bit of stain or misfortune. To me, being at that stuido-turned-museum where Rufus Thomas originated the Funky Chicken and Eddie Floyd first knocked on wood was akin to being at the Holy Grail for all the things I love.

I write this stuff for one reason, and one reason only: I merely want to make clear my musical tastes and preferences. Sure, there are a trillion other musical offerings for which I could argue — Bill Withers’ “Use Me” is the single greatest song ever written, for instance, and much like the rest of the music-writing world, I absolutely love Wilco, I look at Elvis Costello as somewhat of a heroic figure, and I lust over pretty much anything Norah Jones has ever been involved with — but those are other columns for other days. 

I’m lucky enough to maintain a few jobs that allow me to write about music on a consistent basis, and I’ve been fortunate to talk with and subsequently write about some of my favorite musical artists. I don’t really invest much in the idea of “taste-makers” or even “critics”, for that matter. I think we like what we like. If that makes our writing more appealing in some people’s eyes, then so be it. If less, so be it. Either way, the idea of falling in love with music is something so universal and so personal, that I have a hard time reconciling the constant judgments made and the inaccurate presumptions felt due to one’s musical tastes.

There. OK. Now, with all of that in mind and out of the way, we can finally move on to the following statement I have literally been bursting at the blood vessels to write for weeks:  So … how about that new Train record?!

Honestly. Have you heard it? California 37, the sixth proper studio album from the San Francisco pop rock outfit, was released a few weeks ago and to be honest, I can’t get enough of it. 

All right. There you go. Have at it. Kill me in the comments section if you must. Click away from the page if you’d like. Dismiss all prior “In Defense Of…” columns. I get it. It’s not cool to like Train. It suggests a lack of good taste. I should be shot and my title as Music Reviews Editor for PopMatters should probably be revoked immediately. 

Actually, such is not entirely an act of hyperbolic reaction. In fact, Pat Monahan, the group’s lead singer, might even vouch for how un-acclaimed the group is. 

“I actually don’t expect anyone in the press to like me”, he told Popdust’s Emily Exton last month when asked if he was bothered by the negative reviews his band oftentimes receives. “It will always be surprising that anyone cares enough to ask a question… I don’t talk about business in the records because I think it’s incredibly boring. (It’s like) Catcher in the Rye — I love that book so much — all those references come to mind: phony, boring. Listening to a guy who travels the world and writes songs and does all the shit I do complain in songs; can you think of anything more boring than that?” (“Train’s Pat Monahan: ‘I don’t expect anyone in the press to like me'”, by Emily Exton, Popdust, 26 April 2012)

See? He’s a guy with a sense of perspective. What’s not to like about that?

Monahan does have a point. Take, for instance, The Wrap’s Chris Willman, who completely murdered both band and record in his review for their latest release.

“The opening track, ‘This’ll Be My Year’, bears an uncomfortable resemblance to Billy Joel’s ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’, but imagine if Joel really intended his history tour as a backdrop for bragging about Christie Brinkley”, Willman wrote. “In this unofficial remake, Monahan offers a quick, newsy tour of his adult life, starting with 1985 (“Nintendo comes/Live Aid too”), continuing through 1989 (“Pete Rose is banned for good/The Simpsons come to Hollywood”), and lingering to place special emphasis on 2004, the year he hooked up with his beloved second wife: “Facebook joins the Internet/Oldsmobile joins the cassette/I met your family. …

“No, seriously, these are the actual lyrics”, he then deadpans before eventually offering up maybe the most insulting sentence of the bunch, “Mortal coil to Monahan: Get a room — and an editor”. (“‘California 37’ Derails With Wacked-Out Wordplay”, by Chris Willman, The Wrap, 17 April 2012)

Ahhh, but you see, that’s the point, Mr. Willman. What do you expect them to do — launch into some blues jam that didn’t make it on to Jack White’s Blunderbuss (an album, which, by the way, is White’s best musical outing to date)? Or would you rather them slip into some type of spoken-word poem with nothing more than a minimalist backdrop supporting a series of strikingly existential words regarding religion, sex and loneliness (a la Leonard Cohen’s Old Things, which, by the way, is 2012’s best release so far)? 

Train have never argued that they’ve been trying to reinvent the wheel with their music. Nor have they ever really claimed to be anything other than what they are, which is a simple pop rock group that is quite aware of how lucky they are that they were not only afforded one jolt into the hit-making, nobody-can-get-away-from-it song stratosphere with “Drops of Jupiter”, but they also managed to somehow produce a victory lap with 2009’s “Hey, Soul Sister”. In fact, the one thing Monahan constantly — and I mean constantly — proclaimed in the wake of that particular song’s success, was that the band “felt so lucky that the universe gave them ‘Hey, Soul Sister'”. 

I mean, my goodness. What other band in recent memory could really gather a choir to sing the line “You can finally meet my mom” with enough seriousness to make them appear earnest and a small enough smirk to suggest that even they know how ridiculous building that refrain around a plethora of voices can sound? (It also helps that Monahan name-drops Andre The Giant and The Undertaker, too, proving yet again that there isn’t a single person in the world who takes Train any less serious than the guys in Train.)

It’s indicative of what sets Train apart from other watered-down, formulaic pop rock artists today (cough, Gavin DeGraw, cough): They seem to have a complete grasp on who they are at all times and never once do they suggest that they are anymore important than their fans or contemporaries, nor do they ever imply they truly believe the type of music they write makes all that much of a difference in the grand scheme of things. It’s the complete antitheses of Scott Stapp’s knee over a floor monitor or Chad Kroeger’s constant scowl he wears during even the most silly of Nickelback songs. 

“As their exposure gradually decreased over the middle and latter portion of the decade, they began to cling a little more tightly to their pop tendencies — thus resulting in the runaway success of the unabashedly mainstream Save Me, San Francisco“, the people over at Sputnik Music said during their 1-out-of-5 review of Train’s latest album. “Even though opinions were deeply divided upon its release, there are still very few listeners to this day who can objectively deny that it was an infectious pop album. However, that’s the point in the story where one utters the old adage ‘quit while you’re ahead’ in hopes that Train will realize the good timing of their efforts, enjoy their fortune, and return their focus to what they do best.

Unfortunately, as is the case with many bands blindsided by success, Train voluntarily dives even deeper down the rabbit hol … coming out on the other side immersed in a world filled with puffy clouds and lollipops… In the end, the best thing you can hope for here is that you’ll discover a few redeeming moments amidst this trite, superfluously cheerful mishmash of failed ideas. The ability to tune out lyrics is also a huge plus. Take this album as you normally would (with a grain of salt) and then add further cause for doubt and suspicion. California 37 erases Train’s original identity, simply leaving us with a train wreck. Thus emerges another boy band, ripe for the plucking by enthusiastic tweens everywhere”. (“Train: California 37”, by Staff, Sputnik Music, 18 April 2012)

Some of that may hold a little bit of weight — everyone is entitled to their own opinions, of course — but to call them another boy band? That’s a bit much. And to dismiss the band’s latest album as just another shiny and over-produced pop record would actually be categorically incorrect (as Monahan mentions in that Popdust interview, Save Me, San Francisco was a much more expensive album to make than California 37, which was not only cheap, but efficient). Those points do prove their worth, however, as they illustrate exactly how unfair and single-minded critics, writers, listeners and popular culture as a whole can be when approaching releases based on artists’ reputations rather than their work. Combined with Willman’s comments of the same ilk, they all add up to one, big, “Honestly — there was nothing Train could have done to please you” sentiment. 

But maybe that’s why they’re so appealing. If you find yourself pigeonholed in the company of pop artists who will almost never be critically celebrated, why not write an album filled with more pop culture references than a season of 30 Rock? Why not offer up a song taking a shot at your ex-wife and former band-mates? Why not release a first single with the laughably flippant “Ohhh, the way you do me” anchoring its chorus? You’re playing with house money at that point, anyways. You might as well find ways to amuse yourself and have fun with it, right?

The most intriguing part of this equation for me is the fact that Butch Walker receives a production credit on every one of the listed songs California 37 offers (there is an unlisted track at the end of the disc that didn’t feature his help). I’m a huge fan of Walker, dating all the way back to his Marvelous 3 days, and as it turns out, I’m also not alone in that admiration. Since opting for a career in song-writing and producing — in addition to his always reliable solo artist offerings — he’s been the go-to producer for every Top 40 hit that hipsters admit is a “guilty pleasure”. Pink, Kelly Clarkson, Avril Lavigne and a whole slew of other pop stars have gone to him in the past for his expertise.

His addition to the Train World is both noticeable and welcome — do you really think anyone else could have directed the thriving tempo of “50 Ways To Say Goodbye” as well and as urgent as it’s clear Walker did here? More importantly than song quality, though, one must consider why his presence hasn’t been taken into account by these writers who have insisted on panning the album. His touch has been one of gold and it has been famous for extending far and wide. He’s always been one to love words and witticisms and bringing that to a table already filled with unique one-liners and odd phrases was and is a match made in pop alliteration heaven. And critics seem to love him, too, which is why it raises a question or two about any possible agendas behind the universal hatred Train seems to endure. 

But then again, hatred seems to be a thing the boys in Train deal with on a pretty consistent basis. They’ve got six studio albums, one completely forgotten EP (which is fantastic, by the way, if you can get your hands on it), one live record, one live DVD and almost 15 years behind them now and if they haven’t changed anyone’s minds by now, conventional wisdom suggests that they never will. In fact, I’m willing to bet that even this silly diatribe about how they should be given the benefit of the doubt more often will be dismissed and ridiculed long before anyone even gets the chance to meet Virginia. 

Hell, even I hated “Drive By” the first few times I heard it. They were rushing out a new record, I thought. They didn’t need to do this. But lo and behold, after a few more listens and a couple awkward moments pulling up to other cars with my windows down and Pat Monahan’s voice ringing louder than it ever need to be from any set of car speakers ever, I fell in love with California 37, much like I have with every other one of Train’s previous albums (most notably, the often-overlooked For Me, It’s You, which had a lead single, “Cab”, that I thought was fantastic). 

To me, Train will always embody everything that’s good in popular culture. It’s fun, unassuming music for unhappy and mildly pathetic people (which pretty much describes me to a T). You root for them because you know that even if you hate their music, they won’t hate you — they’ll just kindly ask you to turn to a different radio station and probably even agree with you when you say that the new Kelly Clarkson single is better than what they offered up. That’s just the kind of guys they are. Nice people making nice music for other people to maybe even connect with from time to time.

Sure, it might not be Etta James, Bill Withers or Elvis Costello. But since when did music have to be so serious (and seriously acclaimed) to matter, anyways? Besides, for every Otis Redding, there’ll always be a Rufus Thomas doing the Funky Chicken somewhere in the distance behind him. And as even the most elite music critics and fans should know by now, everyone deserves a few minutes to do the Funky Chicken, from time to time.