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October 1999 Pick of the Month
The Emperor's New Band
Artist:  This Train
Label:  Organic Records
Time:  12 Tracks/ 42:01 minutes
I'd accuse This Train of jumping on the swing bandwagon, if only they weren't so blasted good! Yes, their new album, The Emperor's New Band, carries very strong elements of swing and its backwoods cousin rockabilly, but it has so much originality and is played with so much heart that it'd almost be a sin to call them "just another swing band."

"She's a Rocket" could be played alongside the modern kings of swing, Cherry Poppin' Daddies and Squirrel Nut Zippers. Songs like "I Want To Be Your Man" and the cover of the Rich Mullins classic "Screen Door" have more of a Stray Cats vibe to them. Other songs, such as the biting title track, are distinctively un-swing, and keep the album from falling into a musical rut.

Many parts of The Emperor's New Band have a strong "Weird Al" Yankovic feel to them, which isn't that surprising, given frontman Mark Robertson's…uh…different sense of humour. In songs like "Monstertruck 2000," "The Magic Bean" and "The Emperor's New Band," Yankovic's influence is most evident:

Do you remember a time, back before you ever made a dime
And you played the open mic nights for exposure?
But now you're loved and adored and the singer's back at Betty Ford
And the ex-wives all feel the need for some closure
VH-1, setting sons, and all the strings and vocals are canned
Drugs and guns, too much fun, way too much excitement to stand
Come on give the boys a hand, their supply's still in demand
Put your hands together for the emperor's new band, the emperor's new band
The most hilarious track, however, is Robertson's minute-long rant about jazz, fusion and Miles Davis, titled, appropriately enough, "Jazz":
Simply owning a saxophone does not necessarily a jazz man make, my friends.  Kenny G is not jazz. He is the anti-jazz.
Aside from these few stints into comedy, though, The Emperor's New Band has a strong sense of worship in the lyrics, from the devotion-pledging "I Want to Be Your Man" to "The Way It Sounds," a surf-influenced number telling God how much Robertson loves the sound of His voice. Presumably this focus on worship in lyrics is due to the fact that Robertson spent the last year touring with The Ragamuffin Band, which you may know as Rich Mullins's old backing band.

As good as some of these songs are, a few shots don't hit the target. "Technology" is one of them, its catchy music being spoiled by its unimaginative lyrics. The aforementioned "The Way It Sounds" also comes across as awkward, spoiling its worshipful lyrics.

Despite these faults, The Emperor's New Band continues This Train's track record of great albums, and is a worthy addition to any Christian's CD collection.

Michial Farmer 9/8/99

Mark Robertson remarked recently that This Train is something he does with passion. The proof is in this proverbial pudding. A beefed-up recording budget has allowed This Train to add a horn section for their second label release, The Emperor's New Band. Musically, the listener will hear rock-a-billy, jump blues, R&B and jazz--and lyrically the band is more upfront spiritually than ever. The first single to be released is the hymn "No, Not One!," which closes the album. Although the radio version excludes the acapella section that follows the song's jazz-like party rendition,  "No, Not One" is very worshipful and encourages listeners through beautiful lyrics:

      Jesus knows all about our struggles,
      He will guide 'til the day is done;
      There's not a friend like the lowly Jesus,
      No, not one! No, not one!
Robertson again composed most of the songs, and his lyric-writing shows improvement, depth, and the delightful humor fans expect. Snippets from the lyrically inspired title track, for example, provide plenty of play on words:
      Tour bus wheels, solo deals, living off the fad of the land
      Catered meals, keep it real and never get too close to the fans
      VH-1, setting sons, way too much excitement to stand
      Come on give the boys a hand, as they're striking up the bland
      Come on give the boys a hand
      Put your hands together, might be now or never, put your hands together
      For the emperor's new band.
Beginning with audio clips of Tex Williams, the first track, "I Wanna Be Your Man," is fast becoming a favorite among fans who have heard it performed live. Phil Madeira and Jimmy Abegg contributed to writing the music on the final version of "We'll Leave the Light On," and the demo version is included as a bonus track. Both renditions encourage listeners to grab a partner and dance. The album also includes a great cover of Rich Mullins's "Screen Door" and a remake of the classic fan favorite "Monstertruck," which appears here as a bonus/hidden track with Eric Hauck singing backing vocals instead of former co-lead singer Beki Hemingway. The music of "She's a Rocket" was written mainly by lead guitarist and engineer Jordan Richter with help from Robertson and Cobra Joe. This song is not only one of the album's standouts, it has also become the band's first-ever video. And "Technology" features another dose of welcome humor:

       Wish I may, wish I might, wish upon a satellite
        You can give us back our dream, networked in the datastream
        Everything gonna be alright, 'cause 1 plus 0 equals 2 tonight
        So don't freak out if I ain't home, you just leave your message at the tone
        You just leave your message at the tone, and we'll get back to you!

Riki Michelle, Eric Hauck and Carl Herrgesell perform backing vocals on various songs, many of which will take you back to the days of 50's and 60's rock 'n' roll; and Alexia Abegg (Jimmy A's daughter) has a speaking part on "The Magic Bean."

Although you can expect something different from the Trains this time around, as with previous releases, The Emperor's New Band will appeal to people of all ages and raises the question:  "just how far could This Train go if more time was devoted to their development and promotion?"

Trish Patterson    9/8/99

In a world content with the austerity of many CCM artists, acts breaking this mold can become a shining beacon to those in search of something else. One such coterie is the band, This Train. After being in CCM but not being part of it for the past several years, This Train has released a new project which is sure to catch the attention of a growing crowd not willing to settle for  mediocrity.

This Train's latest project, The Emperor's New Band, has a cohesiveness not previously found in their work. Of course, the band's popular tongue-in-cheek lyrics are back, but they are skillfully infused with other elements to tie the project together. The lyrics and music were written in no time with ease and grace. "They just came together," explains Mark Robertson, This Train's frontman. This Train was able to afford hired horns.  Their addition stops short of producing a swing/ska sound, but rather, it blends with the band to produce a picturesque sound that is impossible to label into a single genre. Robertson and Jordan Richter are right on with the guitars and Cobra Joe has his best performance to date on the drums. Together all of these elements come together somewhere between swing, punk, slapstick, rock-a-billy, surf, and gospel to form This Train's most spiritually upfront record yet.

The band's spirit of jest continues in their recognition of the power of coffee in the song "The Magic Bean." This Train also has their own tribute to jazz music in the song "Jazz". This song stands out from the rest of the album in that it is simply vocalist Robertson spewing out whatever popped into his mind about jazz music. The fan favorite, "Monstertruck," has been repolished and re-released as a hidden track. With the absence of a female vocalist, this tune sounds remarkably similar to their live sound. "The Emperor's New Band," a favorite of the band, is not quite an autobiography for the band. Instead, it could be considered a tune addressing the subject of celebrity. It fits the band's personality and disinterest in popularity.

Several of the songs from the project stand out as potential singles. The first one is This Train's version of the hymn, "No Not One." The band began practicing this one while on tour with Rich Mullins. It begins sounding a bit swingish and ends with the band singing the chorus acapella. My personal favorite is "She's a Rocket."  Mark Robertson describes it as a spiritual metaphor--"I was writing this song about a guy chasing after someone. Then I thought about the girl at Columbine High School who was so sure of her faith that she could stare down the barrel of a gun and not deny Christ. It's so amazing that someone that age had so much faith in where she was headed."

This project is sure to catch the attention of any listener. Those looking for a different sound, other than contemporary Christian music, will immensely enjoy it. If such a diverse mixture of music causes trembling or fear, this is not the record for you. The purposeful distortion of some sounds may take a couple sittings to grow on you but the project is well worth it.

Cathy Courtright. 9/20/99

Once upon a time, in the grand land of Texas there was a rowdy, roving band that desired to play for their Emperor. Both accomplished musicians and songwriters, as well as sort of jocular court jesters, they stitched their music together not with invisible, imagined thread but with very tangible talent and exquisite care. Their collaboration resulted in thoughtful, well-played, accessible songs with a wildly witty edge. Employing their raucous rock-a-billy style, they certainly came to town to entertain both kings and fools--and they do so exceedingly well. However, they also intended to leave their delighted audiences with a little bit more than a few guffaws.

That band is This Train, and their albums are as much thoughtful, personal travelogs as they are big playful parties. A worthy successor that almost matches the delights of Mimes of the Old West, Emperor's New Band is their third official release, and continues their tradition of both thought-provoking yet whimsical wanderings captured in song. Astute, inspirational subject matter is filtered through their signature cleverness and wrapped in quality, frolicsome sing-alongs. Plus there's a cool beatnik rant called "Jazz" and a remake of the first album hit "Monstertrucks!" What more could you possible want? Catch them while you can.

Steven S. Baldwin   11/10/99

Following up an album like their previous attempt was always going to be a hard job, and sustaining a similar level of humor just added to This Train's workload. The Emperor's New Band sees the band adding a stronger pinch of swing to their mixing bowl, which adds to the frenetic energy, but unfortunately causes a few fractures to appear in the final result. In places it seems like they're trying a little too hard, but then the track changes and things begin to make more sense. The monologue that is "Jazz" is a highlight, but this album doesn't quite strike the same chord that Mimes of the Old West did. Still a worthy effort, worth checking out for some seriously fun music.

James Stewart 2/1/2000


 

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