Here’s something to make you feel old, Gen Xers: Train scored its first hit, “Meet Virginia,” in 1998. That was eight years ago.
Yes. Train has been selling millions of records for almost a decade. How’s your retirement fund coming along?
Anyway, about the music — the conventional wisdom regarding Train is that they started out as a decent enough indie band, hit the big time, and promptly sold the fuck out. And I guess there’s a grain of truth there. I mean, Train and Drops of Jupiter are definitely a study in contrasts; one is very stripped down and bare, the other is piled high with overdubs and assorted production goo. But all that really means, I think, is that Train didn’t have the budget to capture its intended sound until the major-label dough came rolling in. That shouldn’t be the case in today’s world of affordable home recording, but Pat Monahan and his crew have a definite Technicolor vision for Train’s sound, and it includes all the hoary de rigueur touches that only the big boys get to have on their albums: live strings, horns, choir vocals, so on and so forth.
This evolution in sound hit its apogee with 2003’s My Private Nation, a brittle, overproduced paean to Top 40 radio that often sounded like a parody of the critics’ version of Train. Not that they’d ever been roots rockers, exactly, but the gloss was getting out of hand — they sounded as though they were getting ready to pull a Goo Goo Dolls.
And now here’s For Me, It’s You, which strikes a comfortable middle note between Jupiter (still their best album, in my opinion) and Nation. The songs are safely melodic and instantly familiar, the lyrics are heartfelt and melodramatic, and the production usually manages to straddle old-fashioned rock and tweener pop fairly convincingly.
The end result is an album that, like most of Train’s output, nakedly evokes the band’s inspiration — Stones, Petty, et cetera — without really capturing its essence. These really aren’t bad songs, but they’re so perfectly edgeless that they can’t help but feel counterfeit somehow. It’s cool and all to hear echoes of “Gimme Shelter” in a new song — to watch the music’s roots grow deeper, and bear new fruit — but it begs the question: Are you going to want to spin For Me, It’s You over and over again, or just go back and listen to “Gimme Shelter” one more time?
Maybe the answer isn’t important, though. Whatever its flaws, For Me, It’s You proves that, while Train might be mostly formula, it’s at least good formula, and one the band isn’t above tinkering with. This brand of unflinchingly earnest post-classic rock isn’t for everybody — it definitely leaves me wanting the real thing — but you’ve got to appreciate the sense of craft that went into these songs. In the era of Pro Tools and fixing it in the mix, it’s nice to hear performances that were actually thought out and sweated over. I think you’ve also got to admire the chutzpah behind the band’s decision to cover Sugar’s “If I Can’t Change Your Mind,” a choice that will probably earn them more than a few critical brickbats.