Columbia Records, 2012
|Producer extraordinaire Butch Walker.|
These songs were written and recorded while the band (and Walker) toured in support of their last album (2009's Save Me San Francisco), and as a result, they have a looser, more spontaneous feel to them than is usually present in modern pop music (Train's included). The cover depicts a classic car roaring down a sunlit highway, and that's fitting for a record that would be perfectly well suited for a spur-of-the-moment summertime road-trip: these songs are drenched in the kind of sunsoaked melodies that have formed the backbone for many a brilliant summer record, with hooks the size of houses and dynamic instrumentation. Songs like the pop-countrified "Bruises," complete with a guest vocal from country singer Ashley Monroe, or "Sing Together," which is essentially a rewrite of "Hey Soul Sister," right down to the chord progression and ukulele accompaniment, are poised to take over your local radio station this summer, while even the less commercially viable options are loaded with pop-sheen, from the Mariachi-influenced verses of "50 Ways to Say Goodbye" (and the skyscraping chorus they explode into), or the whistle-led "You Can Finally Meet My Mom," which is a lot of fun despite dumb lyrics.
But even despite Walker's welcome presence and a lot of enjoyable songs, Train are still the same band they've always been, and California 37 does end up falling into a lot of the same traps that have plagued most of their singles for the past fifteen years. Monahan stumbles upon a sincere line here and there, but for the most part, his lyrics are gimmicky and dumb, and in the worst cases, completely nonsensical. His songwriting partners (Walker and the guys from Espionage, among others) help to temper that habit on the album's best songs, but it's allowed to run wild on many of the album's more "commercial" tracks, and as a result, those end up bringing down a record that I actually could have seen myself listening to a lot this summer. First single "Drive By" is a particularly egregious offender ("When you move me, everything is groovy/They don't like it, sue me, mmm way you do me"), but drivel like "Mermaid" and the title track don't really help the band's case either. Monahan's pop music clichés and unfunny pop culture references extend beyond those three tracks, but in most cases, the melodies are strong enough to render them harmless. When Train is trying to play towards today's pop-music trends, they sound awkward and strained, and the results are as grating as the worst singles the genre has to offer; when they play it straight, they land somewhere between Counting Crows-lite and sugary pop singer/songwriters like Jason Mraz and Gavin DeGraw. Neither version is transcendent by any means, but overall, California 37 is a pleasant surprise from a band I've written off more times than I can count: it's disposable and largely forgettable, and it's not going to get anywhere near my end-of-the-year list, but it's fun, and every once in awhile, that's enough.