If you caught American Idol a few Tuesdays ago, you’d have seen what historians years from now will refer to as the passing of the mush-rock torch: Ace Young, the competition’s doe-eyed dunderhead, sang “Drops of Jupiter” by Train, the San Francisco outfit Young described as one of his favorites. Ace’s eventual ascension seems assured (even if he’s been voted off the show by the time you read this): Gavin DeGraw unburdened by a voice or a personality, bland and inoffensive — perfect fodder for a career dedicated to soundtracking baby showers and backyard barbecues.
Ace fucked up “Drops of Jupiter” like he’s fucked up everything on Idol (with the exception of “We Will Rock You” last week: the song resisted even Ace’s attempts to turn it to mush). But can you blame the guy for loving Train? “Jupiter,” like most of the stuff in the band’s oeuvre, is a terrible song, simultaneously underwritten and overwrought, with a melody that’s more of a pain to forget than a pleasure to remember. And yet it sprang from a mush-rock formula that’s served Train well: they’ve all got Grammys and platinum plaques sitting on their mantelpieces at home to prove it.
On the new For Me, It’s You (Columbia), frontman Pat Monahan and his bandmates almost sound aware of guys like Ace nipping at their heels. On several cuts — the album’s most tolerable — they jack up the tempo beyond their usual coffee-shop amble, which gives the music a refreshing blast of life. With fuzzier guitars, “Get Out” could be a Foo Fighters B-side, while a somewhat left-field cover of Sugar’s “If I Can’t Change Your Mind” (complete with nutty synthesizer bleeps) attains a brisk folk-rock groove. And guitarist Jimmy Stafford gives “Am I Reaching You Now” a funky energy that echoes Led Zeppelin’s old acoustic numbers.
But most of the disc is as dull and unimaginative as it will be popular. (They headline the Orpheum this Tuesday.) In “Give Myself to You,” Monahan complains about having “not enough and too much” at the same time, which handily describes the problem with Train: they start with weak material, then play it as though they were really onto something. The conviction is admirable, I suppose, but they’d sound less insufferable without it.
Train’s mush-rock peers, the once-cool Goo Goo Dolls, whose new album hits stores the same day Train roll into town, have been guilty of harboring the same inflated sense of self-importance. Their late-’90s smash “Iris” is a master class in tortured narcissism, with frontman Johnny Rzeznik whining, “I just want you to know who I am,” like we’ve got any choice in the matter. But the Goos have a knack for occasionally delivering goods that are beyond Train’s grasp: “Iris” sounds as big as its sentiment, building from a stripped-down acoustic lament to a swirling orchestral jam that lends Rzeznik some psychological credibility. Credit this perhaps to the band’s history in Buffalo’s trash-punk scene, where they got their start playing to audiences more than willing to call them on their bullshit.