TRAIN – California 37

Three years on from their multi-million selling ‘Save Me, San Francisco’ (and the uber-irritating single ‘Hey Soul Sister’), Train’s sixth studio album musically picks up where its predecessor left off, beginning with what is, perhaps, one of the best songs of the band’s career.

That may well be a big statement, but ‘California 37’s opening track ‘This’ll Be My Year’ is stupidly infectious.  In three and a half minutes Pat Monahan reels off various key elements of the past thirty years – mentioning “Back To The Future”, the divorce and death of Lady Di, the death of Freddie and end of Queen, the destruction of the world trade centre and invention of the all-compassing F*cebook and far more besides – over a hugely uplifting tune.  The idea of the “list song” is hardly a new phenomenon, and this addition to the many may never reach the brilliance of Billy Joel’s ‘We Didn’t Start The Fire’, but on its own merit it’s immensely enjoyable and avoids being too clumsy.    Aside from various newsworthy elements, listeners are given a rousing chorus hook – complete with the necessary levels of ‘whoah’ over a hugely accessible tune which means you’ll possibly means the radio will pummel it into the ground.  It’s a great snapshot of the kind of adult pop this Californian band do so, so well when they hit the mark, and with such a strong opening statement, hopes are set high.

Perhaps too high.  Despite such thrilling beginnings – and a handful of great tunes scattered throughout its eleven cuts – much like ‘…San Francisco’, ‘California 37’ really suffers from filler material and an unnecessary love of lightweight calypso tendencies.  In fact, the best cuts from ‘…San Francisco’ and the two or three killer cuts present here could probably be compiled to make one consistently enjoyable pop-rock release.

With a combination of plucked acoustic guitars, mellotron sounds and harmony vocals, ‘Feels Good at First’ is something of a slow burner.  Monahan sounds vocally at ease and the tune itself is quite pleasing and at least to begin with, it’s a number which sounds a little empty.  After a few spins, its gentle nature becomes endearing.  Fans of acoustic pop in the vein of Lowen & Navarro will surely have heard much better in the past, but as part of this Train disc, it’s enjoyable enough.  When it comes to the more pompous side of the Train sound, it’s the piano-based stuff which really works for them…and the soulful ‘When The Fog Rolls In’ is no exception.  Backed by piano and strings, Monahan’s lead voice sounds better on this number than it has in many a year.  With echoes of the band’s 2001 hit ‘Drops of Jupiter’ (largely thanks that increased piano presence), the track rolls along gently eventually reaching a really classy climax led by Jimmy Stafford’s bluesy guitar lines.  Although ostensibly a pop band, it’s when exploring the slightly bluesier/soul-edged elements of their sound Train really excels.  Some older listeners may find themselves hoping that, somewhere down the line, Joe Cocker takes a shine to this song… Despite most of the album’s tendency for descending into fairly disposable pop, the presence of ‘When the Fog Rolls In’ and the aforementioned ‘This’ll Be My Year’ alone make the album worth checking out.

Although it’s always good to hear a band trying to bring new influences into their sound, it’s hard to know what Train were thinking with regard to ’50 Ways To Say Goodbye’.  The song features a reasonably enjoyable – if overly filtered – chorus but the verses are just horrible, filled with South American style mariachi guitars and trumpets. It sounds like music from a cheap package holiday as depicted by a bad 80s sitcom.   Likewise, the empty sentiments of lead single ‘Drive By’ – two chords and synth handclaps – is also destined for the forgettable pile…unless you’re twelve years old and think Olly Murs and Paolo Nutini somehow represent cutting edge listening.  Like ‘Hey Soul Sister’ it’s sunny vibe and overall simplicity is likely to make it a radio hit, but for slightly older Train fans who appreciate the band’s occasionally more sophisticated tracks (like ‘When The Fog Rolls In’), this just represents the band’s more frivolous/annoying [delete as appropriate] side.   Since ‘Hey Soul Sister’ proved to be a worldwide hit, you’ll be unsurprised to hear the ukulele making a return appearance on this album.  The offending track, entitled ‘Sing Together’, is a simple strum-along ditty which, if at all possible, makes ‘Hey Soul Sister’ sound as deep as the works of the young Bob Dylan.  The occasional use of brass and the addition of a choir provide nice flourishes, but ultimately nothing to pull this track from the quagmire of mediocrity.

‘Mermaid’ blends more easy calypso tendencies with a sing-along chorus which screams summer hit, ‘Bruises’ is inoffensive, overtly shiny country pop, while ‘You Can Finally Meet My Mom’ sounds like a reject from the previous album sessions.  On the latter, it’s great to hear the piano and strings creeping in and the ringing guitars have a pleasing quality; it’s just a pity the track is spoiled by the inclusion of a vocal which is the product of studio trickery.  It may be the fashion (circa 2009-12) to filter pop vocals as much as humanly possible, but since Monahan is more than capable of a decent live performance, it would be nice to hear more of his real voice once in a while.

Between the occasionally brilliant and the outright bad, ‘California 37’ is undemanding to say the least.  That’s not especially a bad thing, but based on material like ‘When The Fog Rolls In’ (not to mention some choice nuggets from their back catalogue), Train are capable of tunes with more depth than most of this album would ever suggest.  Many pop fans will likely find ‘California 37’ a more than pleasing follow up to the million selling ‘…San Francisco’, but for the more demanding listener, however, it’s a release which will only provide sporadic enjoyment.

April 2012