Pete Douglas looks on in slack-jawed bemusement at the latest song from dad-pop band Train, and wonders whether the band are serious or a brilliant troll.
While casually perusing the Billboard Hot 100 recently, a thought occurred to me: what the hell is up with the continued popularity of Train? Of all the legions of faceless, post-alternative rock bands who roamed the musical landscape at the back-end of the 90’s, few could have foreseen the San Francisco natives being the most durable and persistent.
There were other bland pre-millennium rock groups from who sold more records (Matchbox 20), and more still who could be catchier (Third Eye Blind) whereas Train just seemed like a workmanlike trad-rock band who’d have a couple of hits, and then politely disappear into obscurity (like The Wallflowers). They were even saddled with a nondescript, completely forgettable, search-engine unfriendly, single-word name (never forget Fuel, Tonic or Filter either), just perfect for falling off the face of the earth, and into the annals of bands that time has forgotten.
That’s not how it happened though. More or less all of the band’s peers from 1998 have vanished, and yet Train somehow keep managing to not only survive, but have hits. The latest of these, ‘Play that Song’, is a cheesefest of the highest order. Ripping off an old number by the Larry Clinton Orchestra from the 1930s (a melody also synonymous with the piano exercise ‘chopsticks’), singer Pat Monahan dad-dances and grin-sings his way through downtown LA, in a song and video so unbelievably corny it’s as if the concept of good taste has never existed.
Earlier in this shit-show of a year we call 2016, the band released a new album painstakingly recreating Led Zeppelin’s II, the original version of which was released 47 years ago. It was the aural equivalent of Gus Van Sant’s utterly pointless scene-by-scene reconstruction of Psycho – Train mimicked every aspect of the source material for no apparent reason other than the fact that they can. Who in God’s name is this album for? Surely no one wakes up and thinks, ‘hmm I feel like listening to ‘Whole Lotta Love’ today, but I might go for the Train version for a change!’?
However, even with brief exposure, you soon learn that things rarely make sense in the Train universe. Take for instance this impromptu performance in 2010 where the band turn up uninvited to a Stockholm cafe and play a stripped down version of their ingratiating, and hugely popular, hit song ‘Hey Soul Sister’. The dudes sitting in the back look really and truly put out, as if they might have been far far happier if Monahan had come in, picked up and licked every bit of their lunch, and then left without saying a word. And yet Train just carry on full tilt, completely immune to the aggravation of the innocent bystanders onto whom they are subjecting their overly-earnest shtick.
And then there are the lyrics. You can spend hours, days even, pouring over Monahan’s bizarre, nonsensical, Gen-X steeped, pop-culture-laden rambling. Take for instance 2012’s ‘This’ll Be My Year’, a painful and confused update on the late 80’s Billy Joel clanger ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’ updated to reflect the band’s life and times, and featuring lines such as “Boris Yeltzin chills / Freddy dies but Queen are still” and “I stopped believing though Journey told me don’t”. Or perhaps the bizarre ‘You Can Finally Meet my Mom’ where Monahan sings of looking forward to his dying day hanging out with his beloved, where he’ll “be hanging out with you. Not Jimi Hendrix, Jesus, or the dude who played the sheriff in Blazing Saddles”. WT actual F? And of course there is his ever-clever poetic wordplay, like for instance the steak-themed opening line from single ‘Save Me San Fransisco’ – ”I used to love the tenderloin, until I made some tender coin”. Groan.
Among this sea of schmaltz and middle-aged craziness it’s actually impossible to tell where the line between sincerity and satire (if there is any) can be drawn. Are Train actually an elaborate joke amongst a group of earnest musicians, who can’t believe their luck at having a second act when all their peers have disappeared, and so celebrate by dialling up the cheese and commercial appeal of their music to a ridiculous degree? The great early Train song ‘Drops of Jupiter’ sounds like early 70’s Elton John, not a dorky nearly 50-year old man trying to cop some moves from Bruno Mars.
But herein lies Train’s strange beauty – they are so unabashedly lousy and corny, so willing to go not just right up to line of embarrassment, but to enthusiastically jump over it. At the point where few artists over 40 can crack the charts, Train continue swing for the grandstands every single time. It certainly doesn’t always come off, and the results can be utterly painful, but it’s hard not to appreciate the mere existence of a band like this.
They are completely removed from the harsh realities of a world in all manner of crises in 2016, provide a counterpoint to all the tasteful, musically deft pop music out there today, and create a strange kind of escapism via music that can leave you so slack-jawed and bemused that you can’t help but notice it, and sometimes – just sometimes – embrace it with all your being.
The Spinoff’s music content is brought to you by our friends at Spark. Listen to all the music you love on Spotify Premium, it’s free on all Spark’s Pay Monthly Mobile plans. Sign up and start listening today
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.