Does fame and reputation in one field help or hinder a burgeoning career elsewhere? This is the nagging question behind the music with this recent release from Stickfigure, because each and every review tends to focus on the story of who rather than what, the celebrity versus the music. The "who" here is Black Jack McDowell, renowned former major league pitcher for the White Sox, Yankees, and Indians. The goateed and much-lauded bad boy on the mound, McDowell won the Cy Young Award in 1993 and was on three all-star squads.
Baseball wasn't his only love. He grew up listening to bands like the Beatles and the Who and found himself into R.E.M. and the Replacements (and Paul Westerberg). During his 11-year stint in the majors, McDowell also pursued the rock and roll dream. Writing between starts and touring during the off-seasons, McDowell recorded five albums' worth of independent guitar-driven rock.
Stickfigure's genesis can be traced to McDowell's first band V.I.E.W. In 1992, they opened on tour for the Smithereens, allowing McDowell to prove himself as more than a celebrated novelty. He impressed Smithereens bassist Mike Mesaros enough to the point that they started working together (along with tour sound engineer Michael Hamilton). Assuming one of McDowell's childhood nicknames (he's a lanky six foot five), the new band Stickfigure was born.
When arthroscopic surgery on his right elbow traumatized a nerve that left a muscle in his forearm permanently paralyzed, McDowell's career in baseball pretty much was over. Gone was the nasty split-fingered fastball, yet luckily, the damage didn't affect his guitar playing.
So eight years and two albums later comes this third release, Ape of the Kings. When I was sent a copy, I didn't expect much. Let's face it -- the track record of athletes turned musicians is not stellar. Yet a friend from the record label assured me otherwise. She was right. This is a band with musical merit, irregardless of the associated McDowell baseball hype.
Perhaps because McDowell wrote most of these new songs while facing the harsh reality that his baseball career was ending/over, there is more maturity to this current effort. With that angst translated into a baker's dozen of never less than pleasant rock/power pop songs, McDowell proves this second career is far more than mere dabbling.
My personal preferences run to the slightly more melodic numbers. "Hey Man", the designated single, is just under four minutes' worth of deliciously infectious soft pop, featuring great mandolin and slide guitar from guest Tim Pierce. McDowell has a subdued vocal delivery that works well without overpowering (does a guy that tall really ever need to shout?) and his guitar work often is impressive. Furthermore, he co-recorded, mixed and produced the record along with Tom Weir.
"The Action" is an effective full-band effort with guest organ from Michael Parnell, a radio-ready up-tempo love song with catchy chorus harmonies, while "Olivia Mae" is a soft ballad of more specific advice to a troubled friend, telling her "it's okay if sometime you wanna run away".
"Hour of the Day" brings Stickfigure in line with many modern rockers, the guitars driving the song with a harder edge. It's a song about the difficulties of communication in matters of the heart, and a well-written one at that. "The Grave" mines a similar vein of harder rocking guitar sounds, exploring thoughts possibly related to this change of careers.
The lyrics are void of baseball imagery (though the song "One Down" could be a mid-inning meditation), and certainly work well enough in the service of the music. There aren't a lot of quotable lines to relate however, and while the lyrics are provided, the words often remain obscure mysteries.
Guest drummer Josh Freese pounds the skins on most of the songs (though former Skycycle drummer Rob Brown has since joined the group permanently), and does some great work in "Just Like Them", where McDowell shows his Westerberg influences.
I like the falsetto vocals on "Clumsy Regretter" (another well-crafted rock song), and the way McDowell uses harmonies sparingly in songs like "Say It Mean" (nice bass work from Mesaros here). "Call Me Crazy" is almost rockabilly territory, a pleasant defense of untreated mental illness.
Ape of the Kings is a diverse collection of good songs, well executed and cleanly produced. What most impresses me is McDowell's ability as a songwriter and as a musician -- it almost seems unfair, considering the wealth of skills he once had on the field. I suppose the name recognition doesn't hurt him, and if he gets to put in a plug for the music when writing a column for FoxSports.com, what's the real harm? This music is for real, and if he capitalizes on his past fame to sell it, more power to him.
Stickfigure is making good music and sports a solid lineup touring in support of this release. As such, I expect what's good to get even better over time. He switched games, but don't count him out: Jack McDowell's best stuff might be coming yet.