The Baseball Project
Volume II: High and Inside
(Yep Roc; 2011)
By David M. Goldstein | 8 April 2011
Fellow music writer and Mets enthusiast Jesse Jarnow recently said to me via e-mail: “yeah, this Baseball Project shit’s pretty great.” I couldn’t have said it better. For lovers of the Great American Pastime who want to hear their folk heroes feted to the strains of breezy garage pop, the Baseball Project really are manna from heaven. They’re the equivalent of a winning rally in the bottom of the ninth; they transcend novelty by being far better at this thing than they rightfully need to be. And Volume II: High and Inside picks up exactly where its revelatory predecessor left off, but this time welcoming a few more indie-world guest stars, having a few more stories to tell, and reveling in slightly more robust production.
As on Volume I (2008), Scott McCaughey and Steve Wynn traffic in a brand of pleasant garage rock which might be accurately referred to as “generic,” were it not for the inimitable storytelling on top. In other words, if you aren’t already predisposed to liking baseball (or at least willing to learn), merely being a fan of Dream Syndicate, Young Fresh Fellows, or R.E.M. (Peter Buck plays bass here and McCaughey has been part of R.E.M.’s live band for years) probably isn’t going to be enough. The Baseball Project’s musical accompaniment, fine enough alone, is clearly designed to service the sung word.
An early album highlight is “Don’t Call Them Twinkies,” in that it’s the ultimate in wish fulfillment for dedicated Hold Steady fans. Craig Finn finally gets to do his spoken rant thing in the service of an oral history of the Minnesota Twins! Over a Thin Lizzy-esque, wah-wah shuffle, Finn rattles off intimate details about each of the Twins’ three World Series appearances while painting his hometown team as blue-collar heroes who sometimes have an excuse to suck because “they don’t buy their titles” (touché, Steinbrenners). Thankfully, they’re also “back to playing outdoor baseball / and that’s the way it should be,” since Target Field recently (mercifully) replaced the woefully outdated Metrodome. “Don’t Call them Twinkies” is arguably Finn’s most breezily enjoyable since “Stuck Between Stations,” if only because the man was so obviously placed on this Earth to pay tribute to the Minnesota Twins in song.
“Twinkies” is the fourth song on Volume II, the centerpiece of the album’s rock-solid first half. “1976” is Steve Wynn’s tribute to the recently deceased Mark “The Bird” Fidrych, a charismatic goofball who wowed Detroit Tigers fans for one magical season before blowing out his elbow, but not before becoming the only baseball player to ever appear on the cover of Rolling Stone. “The Panda and the Freak” is a McCaughey-led pop-punk rave-up celebrating current San Francisco Giants players Pablo “Kung-Fu Panda” Sandoval and physics-defying pitcher Tim Lincecum, taking good care to mention not only the latter’s two Cy Young awards, but also his 2010 weed bust. Best of all may be “Fair Weather Fans,” a finger-snapping swing with E-Street-style saxophone in which each band member gets a turn at the mic to discuss their childhood team loyalties, and how they’ll never stop rooting for them…“even though my zip code has changed.” Credit is due to current New York City resident but Minnesota native Linda Pittmon (the band’s drummer and married to Wynn) for rooting against the Yankees in the 2010 ALDS, but somewhat confounding is why she admits to liking the Yankees at all.
Maybe the most impressive aspect of the Baseball Project is the amount of delicious detail with which they approach their chosen subjects. I’m a rabid Mets fan, but until listening to “Buckner’s Bolero,” I’d completely forgotten Tom Seaver, arguably the greatest pitcher to ever sport a Mets uniform, was actually a member of the 1986 Red Sox, despite having watched Game Six of that World Series maybe 200 times. The song provides a play-by-play litany of Game Six what-ifs that might’ve resulted in Bill Buckner “remembered for what he was / a really tough out for the Dodgers, Sox, and Cubs,” as opposed to the posterboy for Boston sports scapegoats. Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan contributes his signature fuzz-guitar rumble to the song’s second half. Which is appropriate, considering he’s indie rock’s staunchest Mets supporter.
Volume II’s second half isn’t quite as strong as its first, probably because the band isn’t all that interesting covering general baseball occurrences (e.g., the dangers of getting foul balls to the face in “Look Out Mom”). Even the songs about Roger Clemens and Pete Rose come off as too obvious (and in the case of Clemens, his song’s way too sympathetic).
But proceedings end strongly, though on a solemn note, with “Here Lies Carl Mays.” It’s the tale of the early 20th century pitcher who threw a beanball that actually killed an opposing player, and the resulting fallout ultimately prevented his election to the Hall of Fame, despite otherwise stellar career numbers. Wynn and McCaughey try to grab at Mays’s perspective, claiming he “never meant to hurt anyone” while expressing sadness over people’s wrongful view that he helped to fix the 1921 World Series. It’s a perfect encapsulation of what the Baseball Project do best, and will hopefully continue to do in the future: bringing a unique spin to baseball history via warm rock music and warmer empathy.