Train – “Train Does Led Zeppelin II” (2016)

Where to start, where to start…

My introduction to Train was pretty common for a man – a woman took me to see them perform live. I knew nothing whatsoever about them the first time I saw them and didn’t recognize any of their songs, at least not until they played a pretty good Led Zeppelin cover, to which I gave an appreciative nod. By the second show I’d listened to them a little bit, though still probably only knew a couple of songs. But once again they gave me a solid Zep cover. Monahan and the boys are definitely fans of the Mothership.

Generally speaking Train seems like a lite version of Nickelback in that it’s both popular and acceptable for music fans of a certain sensibility to dislike them on general principle. Clearly they haven’t had as much success as Nickelback, the band that everyone professes to hate but still sells a ba-zillion albums, but they’re not exactly chump change either. Four Top 10 albums and three Top 10 singles is a pretty healthy resume. Personally I think the professed disdain for Train is because of the view that “it’s what people who aren’t music fans like”. And frankly it’s unwarranted – the band is clearly talented. Am I a huge fan? No. Do I sometimes listen to “Meet Virginia” on my iPod? Yes.

So when I recently learned that Train put out an album that is a start-to-finish cover of Led Zeppelin II, I was both not surprised and stunned at the same time. The band members have been very open about their love of Led Zep, so them recording some covers makes perfect sense. But an entire album worth of covers? And not in a “these are our favorite Zep songs” kind of way but doing an entire album start to finish and staying true to the original throughout? This isn’t Dread Zeppelin giving us reggae-version covers sung by an Elvis impersonator (lest you think I’m joking, Un-Led-Ed is pretty great), where the band takes something old and familiar and makes something new and unusual out of it. No. It’s basically a copy. I couldn’t wrap my mind around the target audience for this. And I still can’t.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, much if not most of the world HATES this record. Don’t believe me? Let’s look at some article headlines.

“Train’s Led Zeppelin II Tribute Is Confusing and Unnecessary”
New York Daily News

OK, that’s not too harsh…

“Train Faithfully, Needlessly Cover Led Zeppelin II”
Associated Press

More of the same, though “faithfully” seems slightly positive.

“Train Shocks Us Half to Death with Their Led Zeppelin Cover Album”
Baeble Music

OK, this is getting a bit rougher…

“Train Finally Releasing That Led Zeppelin Cover Album No One Asked For”

Um… ouch…

“The Band Train Is About To Desecrate Led Zeppelin’s Legacy”
Consequence of Sound

That’s about as close to a middle finger as you can get in a mainstream headline.

And let’s not forget the incredibly snarky “Train Re-Records Led Zeppelin Album, Improves Plight of Humankind” in The Stranger.

Like I said, people hate this record.

So of course, I had to buy this record.

Now one would assume that I would join the chorus of haters. After all, Led Zeppelin II was literally #1 on my personal All-Time-Greatest-Albums-Ever for most of my life, and it’s still and probably always will be in my Top 5. I feel 98.72% confident that I have listened to this album start-to-finish more times than any other, the only other even remotest contenders for that top spot being The Wall or Dark Side of the Moon. I love Led Zeppelin II with the kind of adoration usually reserved for religious saints. I kneel at the altar of its sheer sonic perfection. And yes, there was probably a time in my life when just knowing Train’s cover album existed would have felt like a crime against music. But then again, there was also a time when I felt like I had to hide the fact that I liked Madonna and Duran Duran so I wouldn’t lose some kind of meaningless “rock cred” and went through a mock-ironic Hawaiian shirt phase, so it’s not like I’m the paragon of righteous integrity.

As for the me of today, who is closer to 50 than to 40, who freely admits that Culture Club and Wham! are fantastic, has much broader music taste, and is open to way more new experiences, well, Train Does Led Zeppelin II is fine. I find its existence strange, but only because I can’t figure out who the target audience for this record is. Then again, I bought it… though to be honest, I probably wouldn’t have if I wasn’t blogging.

Musically the boys literally cover the album note for note – there are no obvious Train spins on these songs as near as I can tell. I mean, a 47-year-old Patrick Monahan can only come so close to approaching the power and range of a 21-year-old Robert Plant, but he does his best and doesn’t sound half bad. Luis Maldonado is quite good on guitar, and the production work does a good job in capturing the importance of the drums and bass on the original recording, bringing the drums front-and-center and allowing the bass lines to flow through like a deep, slow moving river. It all comes together best on “The Lemon Song”, IMO.

The bottom line is Train Does Led Zeppelin II sounds really good. The question ultimately, though, comes down to this: Why would I ever listen to Train Does Led Zeppelin II instead of just playing Led Zeppelin II? The previously mentioned Un-Led-Ed gives me a completely different take on Zeppelin – there’s the general sonic and lyrical familiarity, but those songs are done in not one but two completely different styles, reggae and Elvis (and yes, I know I just referred to “Elvis” as a style). I don’t know. Perhaps it’s a transitional fossil that can connect Train fans to their influences. If so, great. Anything that opens up people’s minds to explore music they might not listen to otherwise is a good thing in my book.

So anyway, there you have it. In one last odd twist, the vinyl is in a numbered limited edition, though I couldn’t easily figure out how my copies were pressed (mine is #02432). As a bonus, though, all of Train’s earnings from the album were donated to charity, so that’s a big point in its favor.