Train In Vain: When A Mediocre Band Gets Worse

Welcome to 2013, kids!

Now, I’m sure many of you wondered how PretentiousPDX chose to ring in the New Year, so let me assure you that I rang it in as Pretentiously as possible. While some fools were no doubt glued to their TVs watching Carson Daly’s wizened visage, I was up to my artisan cufflinks in the local music scene, watching up-and-coming local band Barbara in the Attic rocking out at a club in downtown Vancouver. (Full Disclosure: One of the many bullet points on my resume is a sporadic gig as the “Creative Director” for the aforementioned band – a job with exceedingly nebulous responsibilities. As far as I can tell, my main function as Creative Director is to show up occasionally and make sure they don’t do anything that would get them lampooned on this blog. “Well, guys, I’m sure an album comprised solely of Fleetwood Mac covers would be interesting, but…”)

At any rate, in the midst of this artistic tableau, a few minutes before midnight, I happened to cast my glance at one of the TVs mounted above the bar, which was tuned to the New Year’s Eve countdown. To my moderate surprise, on the screen I saw, not Mr. Daly, nor Casey Kasem, nor the late Dick Clark, but rather, the craggy features of Pat Monahan. Apparently, the entertainment mavens at NBC decided that the best way to ring in 2013 was by having Train take the stage and give us a little sonic reminder about how much 2012 sucked.


Meanwhile, Pretentious PDX decided to ring in 2013 the same way we spent 2012: by being snarky.

Now, since the sound was turned down and the band was singing at full volume, I mercifully didn’t have to actually *listen* to any Train, that evening. But as I was clinking champagne glasses that night, I did take a moment to ponder Train’s fall from grace over the last 14 years.

For those of you who were musically cognizant in the late 1990s, you no doubt remember Train’s first hit, “Meet Virginia,” which dropped back in ’98. While nobody ever thought they were going to displace Lennon-McCartney in the songwriting category, “Meet Virginia” was a pretty solidly catchy tune, and I definitely remember it making more than one appearance on the mix tapes and CDs that made their way to my boombox, back in the day.

My momentarily indulgence of Pat and Company started to fade, however, with their 2001 follow-up hit, “Drops of Jupiter,” which established Train as a commercial success. Anyone over the age of 10 knows this song – it was everywhere in 2001. And 2002. And 2003. And every year since, and least on lite rock stations. Personally, though, I’ve always found this song to be mildly to extremely obnoxious, depending on how many times I’ve had to listen to it in the past week (for most of 2002, hearing the first few bars usually caused me to grit my 17 year-old teeth in aural anguish and reach for the radio dial).

Now, you might tell me, “But if it was so popular, it must’ve been good, right?” Wrong. For those of you who don’t remember, 2001 was the year that two of the most played songs of the year were Lifehouse’s “Hanging By a Moment” and Nickelback’s “How You Remind Me.” That’s right. 2001 ended with Nickelback ruling the charts. Obviously, the American public must have spent most of 2001 under the influence of hallucinogens, so we should probably take Train’s success on the charts with a grain of salt.

While writing this article, I went back and listened to “Drops of Jupiter” again (believe it or not, in the interest of journalistic integrity, I listen or re-listen to pretty much every song I mention in this blog… which made writing that last paragraph particularly painful), and it’s not a terrible song. It’s vaguely catchy, there’s some decent piano work, etc., etc. But it’s definitely not amazing enough to warrant the kind of relentless airplay it received over the next decade.

So “Drops of Jupiter” wasn’t great, but it wasn’t terrible. We’ll reserve that appellation for the remainder of Train’s singles discography. Although it was a greater commercial success, for my money, “Drops of Jupiter” doesn’t a hold a candle to “Meet Virginia.” And unfortunately, in the following years, our boy Pat turned this habit of writing songs that were successively worse than their predecessors into an evil trend, with 2003’s “Calling All Angels” and 2009’s “Hey, Soul Sister.”

“Calling All Angels” sounded a little like “Drops of Jupiter,” except with a less catchy chorus and equally obtuse lyrics. It also helped Train ingratiate themselves with an extremely small chunk of the pop music market that only patronizes bands whose lyrics can be misconstrued to support Christian interpretations of their songs. (Christian bands that crossover into the mainstream? Props to you, kids. Secular bands that crossover into the Contemporary Christian market? Why? Why? What good does that do?)

“Hey, Soul Sister,” continued Train’s descent into madness by overburdening an admittedly catchy hook with some remarkably insipid lyrics about Pat Monahan’s conception of what Burning Man must be like – despite the fact that Pat Monahan has never actually been to Burning Man. While I have to give the man props for name-checking Mr. Mister while attmepting to hit on a girl (that requires some serious cojones), the reference is also completely baffling when you consider the subject matter. I doubt that anyone at Burning Man even knows who Mr. Mister was, let alone care enough (or be sober enough) to engage Pat in conversation about it. (Yeah, I bet you didn’t think you could find a way to enjoy this song any less, did you? Well, now you can.)

You know what these two images have in common? ABSOLUTELY NOTHING.

You know what these two images have in common? ABSOLUTELY NOTHING.

Train’s banality reached its apex with their most recent album, California 37, from whose infernal depths were spawned “Drive By” and “50 Ways to Say Goodbye.” In the former, Pat attempts to win back the love of his lady by promising her that, where his affections are concerned, “this is not a drive by.” Well, no fucking shit. While he may have been speaking metaphorically, “this is not a drive by” is a reassurance that should only be employed in Compton.

The second single, “50 Ways to Say Goodbye,” is even worse. In it, Pat Monahan warns his girlfriend that he can’t hack goodbyes, so if she leaves him, he’s just going to concoct a list of tragic fake deaths to regale his friends with – as an alternative to just admitting that he’s been dumped. (Well, what can we expect from a guy who tried to use the phrase for vehicular gang shooting in a romantic fashion?) In addition to being un peu pathetique, this little ditty is sups creepy. For many centuries in medieval England, it was considered High Treason to contemplate the death of the sovereign. While there are no such laws extant about doing the same to one’s significant other, I would think that having a list of fictitious and far-fetched deaths at the ready are sufficient grounds for contemplating a breakup. (“Really, honey? A tanning bed accident? That’s the best you came up with?”)

Now, I suppose it’s easy to draw a parallel between “50 Ways to Say Goodbye” and Paul Simon’s classic, “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” (which, as you may know, isn’t exactly my favorite, but still) – but saying that “50 Ways to Say Goodbye” is the compliment to “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” is like saying that Dealey Plaza was the compliment to JFK’s Inaugural Address.

Like a Carebear stuffed with fiberglass shards, Train’s music seems cuddly and innocuous at first, but if you spend enough time with it, it will become unbearably irritating. And it just keeps getting worse. While we can hope that 2013 will generally be regarded as a good year for America, I shudder to think of what Train has in store for us in the years to come.

I don’t want to end my first post of 2013 on such a dark note, though. So here’s a bootleg of Barbara in the Attic covering Rihanna’s “Rude Boy”:

You can also see some clips from their New Year’s Eve show here.

Stay sharp in 2013, kids.

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