Like most people in the UK, I first became aware of Train when the title cut from their second album ‘Drops of Jupiter’ became a hit. Mainstream UK success eluded the band for some time after that, but they continued to be major players in the US, with their brand of pop/rock (It is likely that elsewhere on the net you’ll see Train referred to as ‘modern rock’. I’m not going to make such claims since I feel that [a] The bulk of Train’s material is often too pop-based to be lumped in with other band’s who’ve gained such a tag; [b]that’s a rubbish term coined by people who enjoy melodic rock music but hated the term post-grunge and [c] the idea of branding anything ‘modern’ is a mistake; after all, it won’t always be modern – and what are you gonna call it then?). After enjoying ‘Drops of Jupiter’, I tracked down their debut, which also had a lot going for it. Although the slightly rockier edge of their third outing ‘My Private Nation’ gathered mixed responses from fans, it did nothing to damage their solid US following and the release of ‘For Me It’s You’ in 2006 continued their success.
2009’s ‘Save Me San Francisco’ reinstates the original Train line-up (last heard playing together on ‘My Private Nation’) and is produced by Martin Terefe – a producer known for his work with Jason Mraz, James Morrison and KT Tunstall. I find James Morrison to be a dullard, capable of churning out nothing more than easily listening tut and Jason Mraz is hopelessly overrated; however, I think most of KT Tunstall’s output is fab, so there was always hope that Terefe could work wonders for Train.
The single release ‘Hey, Soul Sister’ had major airplay on UK radio stations Absolute and BBC Radio 2, gaining the band a great deal of attention – perhaps the most they’ve ever had from UK audiences. Regardless of this, I hate the song. It’s lightweight, feel-good, here-comes-summer quality is extremely irritating – and having the main musical thrust (if that’s the appropriate word here, and I’m not sure it is) delivered on a ukulele does not help matters. Pat Monahan’s expressive voice also seems to have fallen foul of autotuning (and seemingly not the only time on this album, it must be said). It’s a surprise that this became a UK hit for Train at all; when I first heard it, I had trouble believing it was them. Although Train were never the most alternative of the late 90s radio-friendly bands, this song is so bland it hurts. File somewhere next to Jack Johnson and forget it.
Righto. With that out of the way, from the perspective of someone who owns the previous Train albums, how does the rest of ‘Save Me San Francisco’ shape up? I’m pleased to say that despite my dislike of the single and a small concern that Martin Terefe’s main concentration seems to be on Train’s most commercial aspects (leading to a few of the songs ending up a bit more Maroon 5 than I would have liked), the end result is pretty good – even if it never quite matches the best bits of the previous Train albums.
With an acoustic intro, ‘Save Me San Francisco’ instantly wrong-foots its listeners. Given the choice of producer, it was almost inevitable Train’s sound would lighten up a touch, but once the drums kick in, any big fears you may have had about the album being entirely too soft should be swept aside. What eventually develops over the course of just over four minutes is a decent and confident piece of melodic pop/rock with a slightly retro edge. While never as hard hitting as The Black Crowes, for example, this track has a similar bar-room quality, gathering momentum as it goes and eventually making good use of female backing vocals with a souly vibe. ‘If It’s Love’ goes for a quirky approach; initially, there’s a Collective Soul-esque rhythm, but the chorus is far more poppy. Striking a perfect balance between radio-friendliness and soft rock edge, once it finds its groove it has all the makings of a decent track, even if Monahan’s voice reaches slightly annoying pitch here and there and some of the verses’ lyrics decend into quirkiness for the sake of it.
‘Words’ marks the reappearance of female backing vocals and with the way they’re used evokes a soulful tinge, even though the song itself is pure pop; ‘Marry Me’ is complete acoustic sugariness and while the lyrics are syrupy, the sparse musical arrangement is effective. ‘Breakfast In Bed’ is the album’s other truly horrible affair, largely worked from a programmed loop somewhere between a bossanova nastiness and ‘In The Air Tonight’. However, that’s not its biggest crime: remind me to ask the band what “I wanna please you, I wanna Japanese you / You’re breakfast in bed” is all about. Very poor indeed. Some redemption comes from a heavily pounded drum kit during the end section, but it’s not enough.
If I had to pick a favourite track from ‘Save Me San Francisco’ it would be ‘Parachute’. It’s here Pat Monahan’s voice sounds at its most natural; the music is more dramatic – in fact, it’s great to hear guitarist Jimmy Stafford getting to play something a little harder. Overall, it’s far more in keeping with the rock side of Train’s radio friendly chops and probably could have fit snugly on to ‘My Private Nation’. ‘You Already Know’ also hits harder, but in a totally different way. A memorable chorus is laid over the top of choppy rhythm guitars and while it still has an air of slightly-too-calculated radio-friendliness, it represents part of the reason why Train’s popularity hasn’t wavered in the US.
Train have a sound which works for them on this album and rarely deviate from it (the most obvious stylistic difference being on ‘Hey, Soul Sister’); but overall, that more obvious pop sheen provides just enough variation from previous albums to keep the band from repeating themselves. Despite the album’s lead single being teeth-grindingly irksome and some of the songs occasionally blending into each other, ‘Save Me…’ is a worthy addition to the band’s catalogue, despite its faults. It features a couple of corkers among its eleven songs and on the strength of those, Train aren’t about to hit the buffers just yet.