How Train Have Sustained Their Radio Success
Despite the fleeting reputation of its era, Train’s “Drops of Jupiter” remains one of the most accessibly effervescent chart-topping singles from the late ‘90s and early ‘00s. Train released the track in a time period ripe for later criticism, when popular radio was rooted somewhere between declining boy bands and charismatic female-fronted stars like Jennifer Lopez and Christina Aguilera. Train’s 1998 eponymous debut was well-received and had a hugely successful single in “Meet Virginia”, but it wasn’t until 2001’s Drops of Jupiter and its self-titled single that the San Francisco-based group showed they were here to stay. They would never be synonymous with “one hit wonder”, despite a sound that stayed generally rooted in comfort rock throughout their career.
The role of filling a stylistic void was one that Train took in stride. They were one of the few commercially successful groups in the early ‘00s producing a simplistic yet uplifting vein of alternative-rock, with earlier contemporaries like Everclear and Third Eye Blind shifting from the safer sounds that made them stars in the late ‘90s toward a more indulgent yet inventive approach; this kept their fan bases happy but made several radio stations dependent on ratings weary. Along with bands like Five for Fighting and Matchbox Twenty, Train were a group with alt-rock sentiments that were hardly reluctant to cater toward a radio-friendly sound, consequently filling the void left by the previous alt-rock commercial staples on mainstream radio. While critics found nothing innovative or breathtaking about Train’s approach, their anthemic sound tended to emit a sun-drenched optimism that was encouraged alongside more sensual entries in dance-pop or the aggressive punches in other forms of rock. What began as a Led Zeppelin covers band began to become one of the faces for popular rock music in the early ‘00s.
Train’s status a decade ago is well known, even to those just graduating college who surely have some recollection of their early hits. But what’s less focused on is their recent re-emergence, propelled by the single “Hey, Soul Sister” in 2009. After a three-year hiatus due to disappointing sales of their fourth album, For Me, It’s You, and the shuffling roles of bassist and keyboardist, the comeback was unexpected and a breath of fresh air. Again, they were hardly defying stylistic trends like many blog-driven indie acts at the time, but its chart placement proved that listeners were still able to warm up to Train’s warm and polished vein of rock music. Even the best artists have their slumps, but it’s how they respond that often defines their long-term legacy. Frontman Pat Monahan used the time off to record his debut solo record, Last of Seven, and those more intimate sessions resulted in a more relaxed and less forced atmosphere for later works, particularly Save Me, San Francisco. That isn’t to say that album didn’t have its own form of ambition, though. The theme centers around a rising musician forced to choose between on-the-road fame and settling down with his love; it was likely a reflection of the band’s personal contemplations at some point. The album was entertaining and colorful, from the exhilarating hook of “Hey Soul Sister” to the reggae-infused swank of “I Got You”. Erupting choruses were always a trademark of Train, and that presence was not missed on Save Me, San Francisco.
Their comeback made the ongoing success of their sixth album California 37, released in January 2012, much less of a surprise. Fans were treated to the typical chart-topping single in “Drive By”. For that track, it was wise of Train to bring back producers Espen Lind and Amund Bjorklund, who helped write and produce the massively successful “Hey Soul Sister”. Train’s lyrics returned to the romanticized pleas, with Monahan pleading to his beloved that she isn’t just a “drive-by” – a one-night stand. Even with its inclusion on an over-played Ford commercial, it’s hard for most listeners to not be smitten by the good-guy vibes of Train. Not only does their music sound perpetually optimistic and blissful, but their lyrics tend to sway with simplicity and heartrending ethics as well. That, in addition to their fluttering pop-rock arrangements and polished production, is the reason for Train’s sustained radio success.