[23 April 2014]
Alright, let’s see if I can pickoff all these baseball puns right off the bat: This record is Cracker-Jack. Baseball Project really knocked it out of the park with this one. No matter how much you pay to listen to this, it’s sure to be a steal. With an eye on roots rock stylings, indie sentimentality and passion for America’s pastime, 3rd is an ace of a record. It’s right in my wheelhouse.
There, are we done? Phew. What a relief, man.
A supergroup formed from members of The Young Fresh Fellows, R.E.M. and other ‘80s and ‘90s alternative figures, The Baseball Project have been making records about the great sport since 2008. It’s surprising that, 26 songs later, the group doesn’t just have plenty more to say about this storied game, but their stories are getting only more vital, more interesting, and more balanced. This record is a mammoth 18 tracks long; it’s practically a double header (why can’t I stop doing this?).
The project has grown significantly on 3rd. On their better known prior tracks such as “Ted Fucking Williams” off their first record Vol. 1: Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails, you can practically hear the conversation that must’ve happened before writing it. Haha, wouldn’t it be funny if we wrote a song about Ted Williams and put the word “fuck” in it? It’s interesting but obvious in that concept album way that doesn’t lend itself to much more than novelty. And The Baseball Project could so easily be relegated to novelty status. But on 3rd, they elevate their narrative, tongue-in-cheek baseball tunes to a whole other level.
Rather than play it safe (please help me) and churn out more silly odes to baseball, the band seems to really buy into the love for this great game. They explore what makes it great, some of its titanic figures and personalities, and its dark underbelly—from the steroid scandal to the practice of “beaning” batters intentionally, nothing is in foul territory (I want to stop, but I can’t stop).
The record opens with “Stats”, a secret handshake to other baseball fanatics, an otherwise instrumental track with numbers spoken over it. Each number represents a famous statistic or record in baseball lore. To those outside the loop, these numbers sound random. To a fan, they’re audible symbols of the greatest achievements in baseball history.
“¡Hola America!” Honors the heritage and hardships Latin American players endure for their dream of playing in The Bigs. “The Day Dock Went Hunting Heads” recalls the game in which Dock Ellis deliberately plunked the first three batters he faced. “They Are The Oakland A’s” lauds the always-scrappy, easy-to-root-for Oakland Athletics, and the groundbreaking strategy GM Billy Beane was immortalized for in the film Moneyball.
Every song pays tribute to a bygone era of rock-n-roll, and a bygone era of the game. For a rock record all about Baseball, there’s a staggering amount of diversity here.
“They Don’t Know Henry” is surf rock, imagining slugger Hank Aaron as a split-personality. “Larry Yount” is a faux-Americana tribute to the only pitcher ever to take the mound, injure himself during warm-ups, and never actually face a Major League batter. These songs are each fun, interesting, unique ideas that—when paired with 17 other, equally-creative, hook-loaded, diverse tales built around a central theme—yields the perfect concept album.
This is exactly the same formula that The Baseball Project has put to use for two whole albums before, but it feels like this is the first time they’re totally earnest. Earlier efforts seemed more about the idea of making music about baseball than simply music about baseball. Songs such as “Fair Weather Fans” off their second effort Vol 2: High and Inside strayed from romanticizing baseball, and romanticized their own experiences. No such pretensions are to be found on 3rd. The band seems to understand that too. They’ve broken the format, not following the patterns of album art or title that they set up on their first two records. 3rd is a progression, and the band seems aware of it.
If you don’t love Baseball, a lot of the in-jokes won’t register. You’ll probably recognize figures like Babe Ruth from “The Babe”, but little else. For you, this record might ring hollow, but that doesn’t cheapen the experience in any way for those who get it. 3rd makes you love it for the same reasons you love the game itself; It’s a pleasant distraction built on timeless tradition and fascinating narrative. It’s sometimes exciting, often gripping and always nostalgic.