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Carrying Freight

Photo by Angie Landram

Train's musical cargo runs
from rock and pop to folk

By Nicky Baxter

Train's Pat Monahan has just finished up a phone interview with the San Francisco Examiner, and now it's Metro's turn, but he's quick to point out that he hasn't done that many. With a CD release set to coincide with a round of club and small-hall dates, including San Francisco's Fillmore, chances are Monahan and his mates will have ample opportunities to parry with the press.

But right now, Monahan, Train's lead singer, sounds diffident. Forty-five minutes later, he's raving about Ben Harper and Grant Lee Buffalo and quizzing the me about my album collection. He's a quick learner.

There's virtually nothing alternative about Train (Monahan; guitarist and vocalist Rob Hotchkiss; lead guitarist/vocalist and mandolinist Jimmy Stafford; bassist Charlie Colin; drummer Scott Underwood). Rather, the band's musical lineage extends much farther back than what's buzzing around MTV's video bins.

"Our group listens to a wide range of music," Monahan reports. "I've always like Led Zeppelin; Rob is crazy for the Beatles; Jimmy likes the Beatles and Led Zeppelin; and Charlie and Scott are into jazz." Not that the band is irrevocably stuck in reverse; Train listens to Toad the Wet Sprocket and other indie-rock acts.

Surprisingly, Monahan doesn't mention the folk and country-rock influences that are so plainly evident on the band's demo from earlier this year, Train--Ltd., and the soon-to-be released CD. Despite the group's often exercised right to rock-out, Train has as much in common with '70s outfits like Poco, the Flying Burrito Brothers and early Eagles than with Alice in Chains or even Stone Temple Pilots.

The citybilly stomp of "Free" and "Meet Virginia" delivers a fair share of Southern comfort, but on "Train," the five musicians head north to crank out some urban caterwaul. Wah-wah pedal guitar, chugging rhythm and a compressed Monahan vocal inject an impalpable sense of desperation. "Days" is one of the group's most compelling tracks, alternating between quiet lyricism and brain-rattling rock.

Listening to tracks like "Days," or even the country-rocker "Free," its hard to believe that Monahan and Hotchkiss, the band's nucleus, started out as a folk duo. "Rob and I started playing coffeehouses around San Francisco and Marin about two years ago," Monahan explains. "I had met him in LA before that. Initially, we were folk-oriented, but as time went on, we began to be a little more edge-y."

Much of that edginess can be attributed to the addition of electric guitarist Stafford and a rhythm section well versed in Dixie shuffles and wrecking-ball rock alike.

That versatility is Train's greatest strength--plus some solid tunesmithing and Monahan's chameleonlike vocals. Compare the good ol' boy bravado he employs on "Free" to the fey Brit-pop quavering on "Eggplant." At this stage of the game, Train is still in the process of discovering its own voice. Says Monahan: "The more we grow, the more we'll sound like us. That takes time."

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