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LISTENING STATION: Train’s ‘California 37’
Question of the Day
After dropping out of the public eye for the better part of a decade, Train came chugging back into the mainstream with “Hey Soul Sister,” a monster hit that pumped new life into the band’s career.
“California 37” is Train’s first collection of new material since that unlikely comeback. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” seems to be the overarching motto here, and “California 37” sticks close to the mix of irreverent pop and breezy, summery rock that made “Hey Soul Sister” a smash.
Vocalist Pat Monahan may be pushing 45, but he works hard to appeal to an audience closer to his kids’ age than his own. Like a cool dad who knows how to talk like a teenager, he fills every song with non sequiturs and tongue-in-cheek references to pop culture, name-checking Justin Bieber one minute and Steve Jobs the next. This is the same guy who sang about deep-fried chicken and soy lattes in “Drops of Jupiter,” after all, and he makes a point of only taking himself half-seriously.
“Drive By,” already a Top 40 hit, is the best song here, driven forward by acoustic guitars and a meteoric chorus that leaps into the stratosphere. The other highlights follow a predictable pattern. “Bruises” finds Mr. Monahan trading melodies with country singer Ashley Monroe, and “When the Fog Rolls In” piles piano chords and midtempo drums into a cathartic, soulful ballad.
On very rare occasions, the band throws caution to the wind and tries out something new. “50 Ways to Say Goodbye” makes room for brassy mariachi horns and Spanish-influenced guitar lines, resulting in a sound that owes more to spaghetti Western film soundtracks than mainstream pop. Unfortunately, there’s not much room for that sort of experimentation here, and “50 Ways to Say Goodbye” winds up being the only indicator of Train’s strengths outside of the pop/rock box.
State Route 37, after which the album takes its name, is a curvy highway that stretches itself across the northern end of San Francisco. “California 37” follows a much straighter path, though, trading the thrill of a few unexpected twists and turns for the stability of a flat, familiar drive.
Love Is a Four Letter Word
Like a beach bum who spends every day by the water, Jason Mraz can’t seem to tear himself away from the mellow, funky, surfer-approved pop songs that have been his bread and butter since 2002.
“Love Is a Four Letter Word” finds the California transplant sticking to what he does best. The tempos are leisurely, the guitars are plucked casually, and the melodies are crooned with pedestrian funkiness, as though Mr. Mraz recorded each one while lounging in a beachside hammock. Even the faster songs rarely break a sweat.
Mr. Mraz’s breakup with former fiancee Tristan Prettyman, an event that could’ve lent some real-life grit to this album, is barely mentioned. Instead, the songs rehash the statements he’s already made before. Mr. Mraz wants to remind us - for the umpteenth time - that life is good, that the water is fine, that everybody should love everybody else. It’s fine advice, but when his West Coast mantras are delivered on the back of familiar grooves and bland fingerpicking, it’s hard to take anything he says to heart.
There are some exceptions to the rule. Vocalist Inara George makes a guest appearance on “Be Honest,” a folk song in the Brazilian tradition, and “5/6” flirts with tempo changes and jazz chords. On “In Your Hands,” Mr. Mraz slows the tempo to a sparse crawl, adding some tasteful organ and brushed percussion to his guitar-and-vocal base.
At nearly 60 minutes, though, “Love Is a Four Letter Word” takes far too long to spell out its message of easy living. Despite all his talk about living life to the fullest, Mr. Mraz can’t seem to rustle up enough energy to sound as excited as he did on 2002’s “The Remedy.” Here, he’s in full-blown siesta mode, and “Four Letter Word” sounds like a snooze fest.
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