The Leaving Trains
For those who jones for old school punk rock as it can only be played by true survivors of the old school, accept no substitutes: LA’s most enduring punk rock band, The Leaving Trains, is back with its first new record since being dropped from SST two years ago. Emotional Legs, the Trains’ tenth full-length album, is the much-anticipated follow-up to 1996’s Smoke Follows Beauty. All signs point to it being worth the wait.
Once dubbed “The godfathers of low-fi” by Guided By Voices visionary Robert Pollard, The Leaving Trains have a twenty-something year history as the musical mouthpiece of political activist/rock journalist/transvestite James Moreland, also known as Falling James; a sexually straight man who incorporates his life-long fetish for wearing women’s clothes into his stage persona and pretty much goes out of his way to fuck with the status quo whenever opportunity knocks. You just gotta admire the guy. Just as Bill Murray was trapped in a self-perpetuating Groundhog Day, in a lot of ways, Falling James is locked into 1979. Even this record’s choice of covers — an hypnotic rendering of The Urinals’ “Black Hole” and Eddie and the Subtitles’ “American Society” (two bands at the height of their influence when the LA/Orange County punk scene hit critical mass in the late ’70s) — speaks volumes about a band that couldn’t sell out even if it knew how.
With an intuitive understanding of how to translate his inner conflict into music, Leaving Trains’ song lyrics read like pages torn from Falling James’ diary: tales of loss, disillusionment, post-disillusionment, identity on the skids, and pop-culture obsession, all colorfully washed against a backdrop of unrelenting lust for love. Keenly aware of his flaws (“Big Baby,” “Made That Mistake Before”), James is most emotionally naked on “My Lost Danielle,” revealing himself to be a fatally sentimental, diehard romantic who absolutely cannot let go of the past. This song could be about a relationship that lasted one night or ten years; it’s hard to tell. But the Buzzcocks-inspired guitar riffs, ethereal backing vocals by guitarist Melanie Vammen and bassist Miss Koko Puff, an incredible word economy that still manages to break your heart, and James’ best lead vocal performance of the record make this song universally available to anyone who’s been left holding the bag romantically.
We have now reached the part in this review — which must inevitably surface in all Leaving Trains reviews — where James’ ex-wife, who will go unidentified here, rears her ugly head. Of all the unexpected songs, the emotional ghost (now there’s an album title for ya) of ex-wife looms large on the ominous and rather creepy “Use Your Own Weapons Against You.” Here’s why that’s weird: speaking as a first-hand witness to the destruction of the World Trade Towers on September 11th, I’ve stated in many conversations that a most-horrifying aspect of the attack is the fact that, by hijacking our planes and using them as implements of mass destruction on our own soil, the terrorists in fact “used our own weapons against us.” Naturally, hearing lines like “The traps you set will forget whom to obey/the bombs you think you’ve dropped will rise up to your plane you fly so high,” one might assume this was a politically motivated, anti-war song — an easy and common assumption, I’d bet. But after reading these lyrics, so cleverly buried at the song’s center: “I was tied up backstage, while you got the fame/You’re a bad actress without a script,” well, who else could “Use Your Own Weapons Against You” be speaking to except the woman-who-damaged-him-for-all-other women-who-would-follow? Personally, I think James needs to let it go. This bitch has already been well vilified in songs by Inger Lorre and Stone Temple Pilots, among others. She hardly deserves the attention. It’s a cool song at any rate. Good title, too.
Other assorted high points of Emotional Legs include an inspired cover of Black Sabbath’s “Never Say Die,” which would come off better if James’ voice were a little less baritone; a scathing critique of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s much maligned sanitation of New York City (“New York is Gone”); more fatal romance on “Allura” (Key lyric: “She’s got something I want/But she’s not you“); and the sassy, Ramones-style rocker, “Judy Don’t Mind,” written and sung by Leaving Trains’ drummer, Dennis Carlin (I’d like to see Dennis do more singing on future CDs). Musically, the album is solid, with great psychedelic garage riffs trading off with melodic, proto-prog guitar work that’s probably among the best stuff either James or Melanie Vammen have achieved on Trains’ recordings to-date. The dissonance is the kind of dissonance that make people think Sonic Youth are geniuses (I like the Trains better), and the lyrics are as honest as you’re going to find, coming straight from the mind of a guy who’s likely as much of an enigma to himself as he is to those who know him or listen to his music. And that makes for memorable songs. In addition to its 12 listed tracks, Emotional Legs fills out with six bonus tunes that include an instrumental version of “New York Is Gone” (for the karaoke fans out there). To my ears, Emotional Legs contains no sounds of confusion — only flowing, even-handed, ’70s punk-rock-respecting musical invention. It is The Leaving Trains at their best.