I waited a long time to buy this album, and a longer time to review it. When you’re talking about a band you’ve followed for more than a decade, that’s rarely a good sign.
Of course, Train today is only 60 percent of the Train that started out in 1998 with their self-titled debut and hit single “Meet Virginia.” In the process of cutting 2003’s My Private Nation, the band shed first bassist Charlie Colin and then rhythm guitarist Rob Hotchkiss, replacing both with studio musicians and sidemen, leaving lead voice Pat Monahan, guitarist Jimmy Stafford and drummer Scott Underwood as the sole official members of the band for subsequent albums.
Save Me, San Francisco kicks off with the title track, an ode to the boys’ hometown that is by turns rousing and embarrassing. The hook is a monster… but so is the lyric. “I been high / I been low / I been yes / And I been oh hell no / I been rock and roll and disco / Won’t you save me San Francisco” goes the sing-songy, cringe-worthy chorus. The entire carefully modulated construction—even the sloppy moments appear precisely calibrated to charm—feels like nothing so much as a commercial jingle (more on that thought soon), in the sense that the catchiness of the hook demands that you sing along even as the lyric makes you feel like a moron for doing it.
Follow-up track “Hey, Soul Sister” does nothing to dispel this first impression. As calculated as a television ad's background music—which is how most people now know the “hey—hey-AY—hey-ay-AY-ay” chorus thanks to Samsung’s ubiquitous campaign—“Hey, Soul Sister” is in fact about as soulful as a slice of Wonder bread. The idea that it’s become the biggest hit of the band’s career is a compliment to every act that refuses to cater to the lowest common denominator; this is what you get when you do that, and it isn’t a pretty sight. Never has a string of superficial, self-indulgent lyrics (“Your lipstick stains / On the front lobe of my left-side brains / I knew I wouldn’t forget you / And so I let you go and blow my mind”) meant so fleetingly much to so barely-paying-attention many.
And the rest of the album gets worse.
I would go into greater detail, but you really only need one song description: spare intro builds quickly to swelling chorus with Monahan’s voice way out front, melodramatic vocals delivering pseudo-hip, often-ridiculous lyrics, repeat, crescendo and you’re done. Times nine. The roaming, diverse musical landscape of the Brendan O’Brien-produced discs Drops Of Jupiter, My Private Nation and For Me, It’s You is gone, washed away by a sea of lame white-boy-soul posturing. Even borrowing half a song from the Doobie Brothers (“Black Water” interpolates with “I Got You”) doesn’t accomplish more than pointing out how creatively bankrupt the rest of this disc is.
This album in fact sounds after the first two tracks like a Pat Monahan solo release; with rare exceptions (the lively but annoyingly repetitive “You Already Know” and the overcooked second half of “Breakfast In Bed”) Stafford and Underwood come off as faceless as any of the studio musicians Monahan employed for his 2007 solo disc Last Of Seven. It’s a wonder he bothered to come back, but he seems to recognize that a brand name is a brand name, and Train have surely pumped new life into theirs with this smartly marketed effort.
Plenty of critics have slagged Train over the years as mainstream sell-outs, a group that seemed all too eager to sacrifice their musical imagination on the altar of commercial success. I’ve defended them in the past because until now they’ve always managed to be more than that, dipping their toes in a variety of genres and offering a sort of quirky, earnest charm with flashes of genuine grit and imagination. Save Me San Francisco arrives 100 percent grit-free; it’s 50 percent commercial calculation and 50 percent pure narcissism, a pair of mindlessly catchy pop tunes grafted onto an album otherwise littered with weak hipster posturing and assembly-line power ballads. This album will surely make Train Inc. a handsome buck, but there’s little here that any fan of music that matters will care about beyond next Tuesday.