Review Summary: An underrated '90s roots rock effort that bears little resemblance to the pop juggernaut that shares its name.
Not a lot of people recall Train’s debut. And who can blame them" Train played the type of "sorta-rock" that felt more at home on shopping mall PA systems than at sold-out arenas or packed clubs. And when they finally faded into radio rock obscurity in the mid-2000s, they came back with a vengeance, having retooled their sound to be nauseatingly sunny and penning lyrical tripe such as “I used to love the tenderloin, until I made some tender coin.” Bit by bit, person by person, each original band member dropped out until only lead singer Pat Monahan remained, who recently went ahead and made perhaps their most cloying album yet. But there was indeed a time, before “Hey Soul Sister,” before their adult contemporary radio days, when Train made listenable, even enjoyable
music. I know it’s hard to believe, so hang in there.
Originally a self-funded, independent release before being picked up by Columbia, their self-titled debut evokes none of the aforementioned qualities of their subsequent releases. Absent is the shimmering production and the goofy songwriting, and instead in its place resides a sense of grittiness and authenticity that feels very unlike the band we know today. It’s clear that the bunch were talented musicians. Charlie Colin, perhaps one of the more underrated bassists of his time, lays down some remarkably tasteful, melodic lines, the best examples of which being in the tracks “If You Leave” and “Blind.” Rob Hotchkiss, the long-since-departed rhythm guitarist and primary songwriter on the LP, contributes more than a couple earworm-y melodies. And Jimmy Stafford, the last original member besides Monahan to depart, puts his Berklee education to good use here with some competent slide guitar work and a couple of surprisingly rockin’ solos. Even Monahan sounds good, with the rootsy rock-and-roll feel of the music complementing his Robert Plant-influenced yelping quite nicely.
The one song off this LP that most folks may still have a memory of is “Meet Virginia,” which was inescapable on the radio at the time, and still gets played from time-to-time today. It’s a fine song with a memorable chorus (that includes some questionable lyrical decisions), but the gems lie deeper within. One of them is their debut single, “Free.” The most upbeat song on the record, its explosive refrain and bluesy motifs make it one of the most enjoyable moments on the record. A harmonica and breezily-strummed acoustic guitar introduce “I Am,” which features one of Monahan’s most emotive vocal performances. “Eggplant,” “Idaho,” “Days,” and “Rat” are slow-burning country-rock tracks with satisfyingly crunchy guitar riffs and a lot of twang. But the best song is “Homesick,” whose serene strumming and nostalgic, evocative lyrics about places “Where they still pump your gas for you/Where they remember your name” build into a resounding climax and a fantastic slide guitar solo. Even the occasional misstep like “Blind,” which opens with a gorgeous bassline but goes nowhere with it, shows enough musicianship to be tolerated.
A sense of endearing honesty permeates this record, which is far more than anyone can say about Train’s subsequent work. It’s a shame that they decided not to continue down the path of laid-back, twangy roots rock, but alas, the taste of “Meet Virginia’s” success on the pop charts proved to be too much to resist. Train’s ‘90s roots rock contemporaries like the Wallflowers and Counting Crows ended up more-or-less fading from the spotlight by the turn of the century, so maybe they made the right financial decision. But more than anything, I can sum this album up as a sort of a snapshot – a snapshot of five talented, undiscovered musicians trying to make the best music they can make, before the power of record labels and the allure of popularity inevitably took their toll.