Train mines some lesser-known tunes for holiday album

“This whole album is filled with the most underrated Christmas songs of all time,” Pat Monahan says of the new release from Train due out next week. “That’s what the album should be called.”

Instead, it’s called “Christmas in Tahoe,” and he’s exactly right. While there’s a handful of traditional tunes, the record’s most compelling moments come from compositions such as “Merry Christmas Everybody” by Slade and “Christmas Must Be Tonight” by The Band, not exactly the first songs you’d think of when it comes to the holidays.

“Who even knew there was a Christmas song by The Band?” Monahan marvels. “It’s an amazing song. It’s so good.” Indeed, and the same can be said for “The River” by Joni Mitchell and “2000 Miles” by Chrissie Hynde and company. “What a song that is, man!” he says of the former. “I wish I could write that song. And the Pretenders — that song is so underrated, too!”

Admittedly, it probably seems a little soon to start talking Christmas. Thanksgiving isn’t even here yet, and won’t be for almost three more weeks. If it seems that way now with Black Friday at least gradually coming into focus, imagine how the guys in Train must’ve felt when they recorded the record this past spring. Kind of hard to get into the holiday spirit when all the flowers are blooming like crazy.

Not really, says Monahan, who, surprisingly, made the record without the help of any added ambience. “After 20 years of being in music,” he points out, “if you need a cinnamon candle to set the mood, you probably need to work somewhere else.”

Train’s frontman clearly picked the right line of work. “Christmas in Tahoe” is highly evocative from beginning to end, and it works well as an homage to the originals, which is what Monahan and company had intended. The singer says he’s been wanting to make this record for the past decade, and you can tell. He and his bandmates really put some care and consideration into this one, from the song selection to the performances.

“The last Train album, ‘Bulletproof Picasso,’ was the most difficult album I’ve ever written, because I wasn’t ready,” Monahan explains. “I wasn’t in the headspace of like, ‘Hey, this is what I’ve gotta do.’ There’s no hits on that record, because that’s not where I was at the time. I think it’s a good record, and I’m proud of it, but it was painful.

“And so, when I said to my managers, ‘Hey, I want to make a Christmas record,’ they were like, ‘We’re going to do what you want to do, because that’s when we get the best out of you.’ I was like, ‘Great. I think that sounds really great. Let’s do that.’ So we booked time right away.”

The folks at Amazon heard that the band was making a Christmas record and asked to give it a listen. Shortly after hearing it, the online retailer proposed a partnership, which allows Amazon Prime members to stream the album without any ads on Prime Music or purchase an exclusive download at Amazon.com. Previewing the platter, it’s still hard to believe it was produced when the promise of summer was just barely peaking over the horizon.

“It’s real easy for a bunch of old guys to go back to the greatest moments of their childhood,” Monahan says. “Those Christmas memories, for a bunch of grown-ups, will never, ever become anything but fondness. So it’s easy to play music that reflects some of the greatest moments of your life. It’s just that way.”

It’s considerably more challenging to translate those times that are not so great, and in that regard, Monahan’s an especially stirring songwriter. While he’s best known for radiant radio hits such as “Hey, Soul Sister,” “Drive By” and “Wonder What You’re Doing for the Rest of Your Life,” the poignancy of his pen is particularly profound on deeper cuts from the earlier part of Train’s catalog such as “Blind” and “Let It Roll.”

“Those songs were … those were my apology years,” Monahan confides. “I was in a bad marriage, because I’d created a bad marriage. You know, it certainly wasn’t her fault. It was our fault. During that time, some of the most affective things in my life happened, like the death of my mother. And so everything was sadness and apologies.

” ‘Let it Roll’ was about losing my mom. Most of that whole album, ‘Drops of Jupiter,’ was about that, and even the next album, and those were the years that I was trying to apologize to the person I was in a relationship with, thinking that that would fix things, but it was just too broken. So now when I listen back, I think of those as, like, sad days for me, and now I’m in a much better place. They were healing songs, I guess.

“I’m hoping to get back to that introspective stuff. It’s awesome to be fun and everything, but there are still moments of … there’s some great songwriters out there, and they’re writing … like Jason Isbell: That guy! He’s an incredible writer. I’m learning a lot from people like that.”

For somebody who’s been at it as long as Monahan, it’s refreshing to hear him say he’s still learning. Having fronted Train for more than two decades, he’s about as seasoned and successful as you can get. Since first forming in the early ’90s, Train’s come a long way. Since its 1998 debut was sold at some retailers for a deeply discounted price meant to attract new listeners, the San Francisco-based outfit has won Grammy Awards and sold more than 10 million records. And all of the success has provided Monahan with plenty of perspective when it comes to keeping Train on the tracks. It comes down to being happy with the people you’re making music with.

“Being in a band is a lot of hard work,” Monahan says. “And the hard work isn’t getting on stage and playing music for people. The hard work is … this is not a family. It’s not a friendship. You can’t call it a business. So what is it? It’s a traveling circus, and somebody, at some point, has to direct the circus, and sometimes people have to change for the circus to continue to make people happy.”

The ringleader sounds pretty happy with who he’s surrounded by at the moment.

“My band, the people that make up my band now, are different than they were in the beginning and the middle,” Monahan says. “And these are the guys I want to finish my career out with. I think it’s really important for people to hear how great they are at what they do.”

“Christmas in Tahoe” certainly does a fine job of that all the way through, from the very first notes of “This Christmas,” the iconic holiday ode from Donny Hathaway that opens the album, until the last satisfying strains of “Mele Kalikimaka,” which closes the record.

“You know, it’s no Bing Crosby,” Monahan concludes, “but it showcases the girls in the band, and they’re great.”

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