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Derail the Train: On the Biggest S.F. Band of the Decade 

Wednesday, Sep 14 2011

You know the song. You'd recognize it from the gently rolling piano chords that start it off, or the opening lyric — "Now that she's back in the atmosphere/ With drops of Jupiter in her hair," sung in Pat Monahan's signature nasal whine — or certainly the chorus, where Monahan seems to squat before preparing for an anthemic leap: "Well tell me..." That song is "Drops of Jupiter," and 10 years ago, it launched a local rock trio by the name of Train into what we would call infamy — but what, in quantitative terms, looks a lot like success. Train, you see, is one of the biggest-selling San Francisco bands of the last decade. It has won three Grammy awards, toured all over the world, and sold something upwards of four million albums. Its 2010 single "Hey, Soul Sister" was the bestselling single on iTunes last year, and the second-bestselling song in the U.S., period.

All of which is truly agonizing. Because while "Drops of Jupiter" may have been merely weak and pandering (at least for the first 747 times you heard it), Train has developed into one of the most hollow, bland S.F. bands ever to attain commercial success. (Yes, including Jefferson Starship.) And unlike other locally grown pop-rock acts, its members don't have the decency to shuffle off to L.A. and let us forget they ever set foot here.

In fact, Train returned in 2009, after taking three years off, and decided to call its fifth album, of all things, Save Me, San Francisco — thus disguising 11 songs of cynical radio bait as an act of return-to-roots sincerity. Musically, this stuff is more lowest-common-denominator than even "Drops of Jupiter": You can smell every chorus about 90 minutes before it arrives, each song fits a predetermined mold ("the quiet love song," "the rocker," etc.), and Monahan cranks his voice far into the upper registers, where it's most likely to rise above the din of the supermarket or the doctor's office or wherever linoleum-rock like this gets played.

Worse than the music, though, are Monahan's lyrics, which would make any listener with even a fourth-grader's grasp of poetry shudder with embarrassment. But maybe the Train songwriter is sending coded messages with his torpid word-streams, trying to tell a universe of not-even-kind-of-listening desk-jockeys what he really thinks about San Francisco and himself. Is it possible? Let's have a look at some lyrics from the song "Save Me, San Francisco" — presumably about finding redemption in this great city of ours — and see what we can discover.

Lyric: "I used to love the Tenderloin till I made some tender coin/ Then I met some ladies from Marin."

Translation: "Once I was young and poor and lived in the city with my bandmates. Then my songs got played on the radio a bunch, and I got laid by several people. Now I'm rich enough that I don't have to walk on feces-strewn sidewalks ever again, and it's really great."

Conclusion: Even Monahan knows he's sold out.

Lyric: "Every day so caffeinated, I wish they were Golden Gated/ Fillmore couldn't feel more miles away."

Translation: "Coffee is a thing that they do in San Francisco, right? And everybody knows the Golden Gate Bridge. There has to be a way to make these words rhyme. I know!"

Conclusion: A nonsensical word stream that must rank among the worst poetry ever written about San Francisco.

Lyric: "I never knew all that I had, now Alcatraz don't sound so bad/ At least they have a hell of a fine Merlot."

Translation: Rock star Monahan is apparently so out of touch with reality that he thinks that prison will be nice, because they serve good wine there. Or at least he thinks his listeners are distracted enough that they'll fail to realize how little sense this makes — which is probably fair. (Note: Train is a wine-snob band. It has a wine club for its fans, and earlier this year released a signature wine called, naturally, "Drops ofJupiter.")

Conclusion: Being pretentious about wine is the most legit S.F. quality left in this band.

Chorus Lyric: "I've been high, I've been low/ I've been yes and I've been oh, hell, no/ I've been rock 'n' roll and disco/ Won't you save me, San Francisco?"

Translation: "My writing skills are so barren that I will employ the laziest rhyme scheme in the English language, then beg you to extricate me from my own nauseating predicament."

Conclusion: Monahan knows full well the awful swill he's dumped on the world for the last 10 years, and he's aching to be forgiven for it. Which, fine — but redemption will require either silence, or better music.

About The Author

Ian S. Port

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