Train were the comeback kids of 2010-11, saved by San Francisco, a ukulele and a soul sister. "Save Me, San Francisco" put the Bay City trio back on track after some mid-decade commercial, personal and business-side doldrums, all through the magic of their monster hit "Hey, Soul Sister." Now the group seeks to keep that, er, train rolling with "California 37," its seventh studio album overall and a set of tightly crafted, richly arranged pop songs. Produced by Espionage and Butch Walker, the album is filled with references to pop culture, romance and mortality -- and, in the title track, to haters who "didn't think that Train could ever roll again."
"You were the fuel that I used when inspiration hit a dead end," frontman Pat Monahan tells 'em, exulting that " 'San Francisco' got it done" -- and allowing Jimmy Stafford and Scott Underwood and himself to find some different muses, and musical directions, this time around.
What are the best songs on Train's latest full-length? Check out our track-by-track review of "California 37."
1. "This'll Be My Year" -- Train offers a counterpart to Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire" with an upbeat tune that name-checks a few dozen cultural touchstones from 1985-2012, from Live Aid to the present day, in parallel with Monahan's relationship with his second wife, Amber Peterson.
2. "Drive By" -- Monahan and Espionage team up on "California 37's" first single, which features a reggae-style guitar cadence and a 4/4 percussive thump with a slight ethnic flavor. Monahan semi-speaks the verses in a tuneful, rap-like cadence, then accents the choruses with a stuttering "by-i-i-i-i" vocal hook.
3. "Feels Good at First" -- Built from a gentle, acoustic guitar pattern, this love song finds Monahan celebrating the freshness of a new love and promising that "around your finger I'll be a string." Flute and chorus vocal harmonies give the tune a sweet, wistful quality that expresses renewal with just a hint of wariness.
4. "Bruises" -- Country comes calling on this duet with Ashley Monroe, a convincingly twangy paean about an encounter with a high school classmate who was more friend than love interest. The two characters trade reminiscences and information, bringing each other up to date and finding comfort in each other's wounds.
5. "50 Ways to Say Goodbye" -- Train hitches a ride with Paul Simon for a bit of relationship finality -- set to a brassy, mariachi-flavored tune that rocks out in the chorus. You're not going to find too many pop songs that reference Yom Kippur in any way, shape or form, but we particularly like the section where Monahan sings that "She was caught in a mudslide/Eaten by a lion/Got run over by a crappy purple Scion."
6. "You Can Finally Meet My Mom" -- Au courant whistle? Check. Piano line that echoes Train's 2001 smash "Drops of Jupiter?" Check. Then load in more pop culture references, from Jimi Hendrix and "Blazing Saddles" to Etta James, Bob Marley... and Sitting Bull. Now set it all to another wistful tune that swells into a string-filled finish complete with the West Los Angeles Children's Choir.
7. "Sing Together" -- The ukulele returns, but not in the same kind of sprightly tune as "Hey Soul sister." This time Monahan has a departure from the mortal coil on his mind, writing a percussionless musical farewell note and promising he'll be waiting for his beloved when he's "past the pearly gate."
8. "Mermaid" -- Train channels its inner Enrique Iglesias on this full-bodied track that takes to the sea -- "to an island so remote only Johnny Depp has ever been to it before" -- where Monahan finds his true love, Ecco sandals and all. You can almost see the open, billowing shirt, shaved chest and wind-blown hair as he delivers the song's B-I-G chorus.
9. "California 37" -- Pretty fly for some white guys? Well... maybe. Consider the title track pop-hop as Monahan slings out a "bee-yatch" reference and gets gangsta lite with those who would diss his band. Nevertheless, "a little music cured all the hurt and put hate in six feet of dirt," so the Train ride is ultimately on some happy rails as the group rolls "right to heaven's door."
10. "We Were Made For This" -- Train turns earnest again, but not so much so that it can't toss out a few more pop culture nods, including clever shout-outs to Bay Area totems such as the Grateful Dead, Sly & the Family Stone, "The Last Waltz" and Winterland.
11. "When the Fog Rolls In" -- After all the songs to the contrary, love ends again, this time with lovers handing off shared keys and taking a last look at the scene of some better times. Mournful horn charts and a gospel-flavored chorus lend the song some pithy emotional weight, and it's clear that the curtain is coming down on more than just "California 37."