After reading a few reviews of James and the Drifter’s new EP TRAIN! I thought I’d try to contribute something to the conversation. I need to say a few things that are true about me in order to lay out my thoughts about this album. First, I grew up having no small fascination with trains. My father was a railroader, just like his father before him. There is something deeply nostalgic and romantic about trains to me, so I was happy to see the title of this EP. Second, I think it is disrespectful to sandwich critical statements between compliments. If something needs to be said that is critical, I plan to be respectful enough to be forthcoming about it.
Having said that, if there is something worth critiquing about this EP, and it has been said by quite a few reviewers so far, it is that the album seems disjointed. I’d like to respond to that critique because I think it misses some thematic nuance that seems quite evident to me.
As a child I was fascinated, mainly, by two parts of the train; the engine, and the caboose. The former tears through empty track with a mighty roar, disrupting communities and driving plans, while the latter seems to bring a sense of, almost celebratory, completion. Tucked in between these two stalwarts, though, is a seemingly endless hodgepodge of cars, stories, and places; a rhythmic, yet driven, hum of wheels and gears rushing through town like a Bat Out of Hell (thanks Meatloaf). In tougher times these cars were called home to ramblers and vagrants, some looking for hope, some having already given up on it. Trains not only carry freight, they carry stories and history and it seems that James and the Drifters have captured something of this sense.
TRAIN! begins with a raucous track, aptly titled Train. Like a distant whistle this song starts as a driven yet quiet beat but it quickly picks up a steady roar as if announcing the EP’s presence. As we settle into track 2, Fugitive, and beyond, we’re drawn into story after story, none really relating to the others. But there is something comforting about this collection of stories, something reminiscent of times past, romanticized in westerns, books and folk tales. We’re met with analogous love stories (Pretty Israel), sojourners finding liberation (Bones), tales of forgiveness and redemption (I Will Overcome), and a hopeful lament (Till I Believe). Listening to TRAIN! reminds me of sitting submissively at the tracks, letting go of my hurry and meandering into the depths of my mind only to be interrupted by the end of the train rushing past. Notably, the last track, and my least favorite, Tempest comes in quickly, frustrating any state in which the previous five tracks had placed your mind. It disrupts your contemplative and peaceful place, slaps you in the face and leaves you there. The only thing left to do is put your car in gear and move on.
As a work, I really appreciate the structure of the EP. The songs are well written and, if you allow them, incite the imagination. And, if I haven’t beaten the allegory to death (sorry!), like a train it’s a collection much deeper than its contents. Song after song rushes by, each one steeped in stories we usually never get to hear. I’d like to thank James and the Drifters for letting us hear.
If you’d like to hear or buy the album you can do that here.