[4 September 2008]
Although baseball and rock music are two of America’s favorite pastimes, they have mingled with mixed results. While you gotta dig the way Bruce Springsteen immortalized that pitcher friend of his in “Glory Days” or how Dire Straits’ “Walk of Life” and “Sultans of Swing” have found a home at the ballpark (despite not really being about baseball), some efforts to perfect the pairing (ex. John Fogerty and a little tune called “Centerfield”) have been downright cringe-worthy.
Some curiosity and skepticism is to be expected, then, when the first band ever overtly formed around a love for baseball releases a debut featuring 13 songs which all take place on the diamond. Yet, as is seen in our national game, The Baseball Project’s lineup prove that gritty veterans often outperform a band of sexy superstars when the pressure’s on.
Featuring Steve Wynn (Dream Syndicate/Gutterball/Steve Wynn and the Miracle 3), Scott McCaughey (The Minus 5), Peter Buck (R.E.M., of course) and Linda Pitmon (the Miracle 3, Golden Smog, John Wesley Harding), The Baseball Project can boast the chops that lead to musical cohesion and a devoted fan’s approach to the game (at least among its two principals, Wynn and McCaughey).
In their bio, Wynn explains the catalytic event that, after years of discussion, finally put The Baseball Project in mention:
“‘It finally took flight at the R.E.M. pre-Hall of Fame induction party in New York,” Wynn remembers. “Everyone was happy. The wine was flowing, the food was incredible and spring training had just started. Scott and I talked baseball until most of the party guests had cleared out. And we actually remembered it the next day.’”
The album displays the pair’s encyclopedic knowledge of baseball’s past, creating a history lesson that might not be appreciated by fans who’ve grown up in the steroid/“chicks dig the long ball” era. While Wynn and McCaughey don’t ignore today’s players (with nods to everyone from Alex Rodriguez to Barry Zito and Manny Ramirez in the song “Gratitude (for Curt Flood)”), these players seem present only to underscore the differences between past and present. On the song in question, the lyrics speculate how Flood, who paved the way for free agency, might feel about today’s mega-millionaire culture.
With all the lyrical attention to baseball’s heroes and highlights, lesser artists might have succumbed to the temptation to treat the music as throwaway or deliver a gimmicky product. Not The Baseball Project; the album is both a wonderful, poetic baseball chronicle and a first-rate jangle rock album which showcases each member’s considerable talent in a new context while being stylistically consistent with their past output.
With the 13 songs coming in at under 45 minutes, there is no time for extra innings here. Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails packs musical punch and lyrical prowess in a compact package of crisp, mid-to-up-tempo, all-American rock and roll.
Opening track “Past Time” (a musical question as to whether the pasttime is “past your prime?”) sets the standard. A brief melodic guitar intro and less than ten seconds in, here come the vocals; the tale is ready to be told. After all, a track that starts by talking about “when Campy Campaneris played all nine positions in a game” doesn’t have time to waste.
From “Past Time” through the aptly named “The Closer”, it’s all sharp but economic guitars, the occasional glory of a rock organ or peculiar shimmer of a farfisa, driving drums, and playful vocals. Wynn and McCaughey couch their tall tales and character studies in great hooks, dressing them up with well-placed harmonic vigor.
Other standout tunes include the harmonica-driven “Satchel Paige Said”, the Mellencamp-esque “Long Before My Time” and “Harvey Haddix”. The latter provides probably the greatest songwriting challenge of the album; the song mentions each of the 17 pitchers to throw a perfect game while arguing that the titular former Pittsburgh hurler deserves inclusion after losing his bid in the 13th inning back in 1959.
Again, from the band’s bio: “Wynn explains, ‘It was like lyrical Sudoku. We had to somehow fit in all 17 pitchers. The last piece of the puzzle was a visit to Wikipedia and finding that Catfish Hunter threw his for the A’s—I knew that already—and that Len Barker threw his against the Blue Jays. I didn’t know that, and a natural rhyme was born’”
If you don’t know what either a frozen rope or dying quail is, this record may not be your cup of tea. Yet again, the retro/heartland rock provided by The Baseball Project is so outstanding and so catchy, it would be possible to catch yourself singing along (thus learning) about poor Harvey Haddix’s fate before you even realize it.