It may, or may not, (I honestly have no idea if anyone reading this knows anything about me) come as a bit of a surprise that the proprietor of this blog is a huge metalhead, and unfortunately for the parameters of this blog, metal as a genre does not have much to offer in the way of train songs. This song is a notable exception. For those untrained in the dark arts of metal, Mastodon are one of the most popular, if not the most popular, bands operating in the genre now. Since the early 00s they have been churning out a unique blend of technical wizardry and swampy, southern-fried riffage.
Trainwreck is off of Remission, the record that put these guys on the map, and the one that embittered old metalheads always wish the band would replicate. Mastodon would go on to release increasingly obtuse prog-fueled concept albums about such diverse themes as the classic novel Moby Dick, a quest to obtain a crystal skull from a blood mountain, and a time-traveling paraplegic whose soul ends up inside Rasputin’s body (seriously). Though Remission may not be my top album by the band – Leviathan takes the cake there – it certainly comes close, and its an excellent distillation of the sound that put these guys on the map, and more so than the rest of the discography, it really focuses on the sludgy/bluesy aspect of their sound. Metal purists who maintain that the band lost the plot (in more ways than one), in their later records always hold up Remission as a classic.
As for the song itself, Trainwreck, more so than other songs about train wrecks, has the notable distinction of actually sounding like a train wreck. The schizophrenic, jazz-inspired drumming of Brann Dailor, always a highlight of Mastodon’s songs, and cascading guitar riffage, really does sound like a train flying off the rails. A stark contrast to the scores of early 20th-century train wreck ballads, that will of course be covered here eventually, but a great train wreck song nonetheless.
With their sly inversion of many of country music’s oldest tropes and imagery – including references to Tennessee, jukeboxes, and of course trains – and weird brand of southern mythology, it should come as no surprise that we here at Lonesome Whistles are big fans of the Silver Jews. Trains Across the Sea is off Starlite Walker, the Jews breakthrough album, recorded after the band holed up in the woods outside Oxford, Mississippi. Perhaps this song was inspired by the Southern gothic environs, the Faulknerian darkness that lurks underneath Oxford’s small-town southern veneer, or at least by the remnants of the abandoned Illinois Central line through and outside the town.
As befits a Silver Jews song, things get a little weird in Trains Across the Sea. Dissonant chords in the introduction give way to the narrator’s dreams of trains across the sea and his assorted troubles “on the line” – missed connections, scotch and penicillin, sin and gravity, 50,000 beers – and the imagery of ephemeral trains drifting across the sea helps convey themes of distance, alienation, and of going somewhere uncertain. Lyrics hit a little close to home here towards the end – (in 27 years / I drunk 50 thousand beers / and they just wash against me like sea onto a pier). As someone living through a period of general mid-20s angst and uncertainty, or dare I say a quarter-life crisis, trains across the sea nails it to be a perfect expression of and, like the best of the Silver Jews catalog, manages to be both gorgeous and somewhat unsettling.
Hello, and welcome to Lonesome Whistles. This whole first post/introductory thing is sort of awkward, but here we go…
What is this exactly? Over the course of writing a dissertation on the history of railroads in the US South in the 1880s and 90s, I obsessively compiled a playlist of roughly 250 songs about trains to form a sort of writing soundtrack. The dissertation is (for the most part) done, but the songs remain, and in an effort to keep up with some writing, albeit in a more informal setting, I am launching Lonesome Whistles, a blog devoted to train songs. A cursory overview of my day job, can be found at my admittedly lame personal website here. This blog will contain the leftovers – musings, rantings and ravings about train songs.
So what are you going to see here? Songs about trains, as well as whatever I feel like writing about the songs. For the historical ones, I’ll provide some historical context and relevant anecdotes, and for the more recent songs the writing will probably veer towards artist profiles. Lonesome Whistles will ideally combine my love of history, specifically storytelling and narrative, with my interest in music, from both past and present.
My own musical tastes and biases will obviously peak through here on occasion – you can stalk my last.fm account here, if you’re into that kind of thing. Anyone interested in getting in touch, or following both blog updates and mundane details about my life, can tweet at me here. The vagaries of my post-grad school existence mean I cannot promise any sort of sustained frequency of posting at this point, but I will try to keep the content train moving.