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The Baseball Project Circles the Bases

May. 25, 2011
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While it's true that rock music has produced more evocative songs about heroin use—“Mr. Brownstone,” “Under the Bridge,” “Running to Stand Still,” “The Needle & the Damage Done,” etc.—than it has about the American pastime, The Baseball Project is working to even the score. In March the supergroup featuring members of R.E.M. and The Dream Syndicate released their new album, Volume 2: High and Inside, as well as Broadside Ballads, a collection of topical songs recorded during the 2010 baseball season and originally available as downloads from ESPN.

The songs are a delightful mix of nostalgia, arcane lore and playful enthusiasm. They range widely from fan paeans “Don't Call Them Twinkies,” featuring The Hold Steady's Craig Finn, and the San Francisco Giants anthem “Panda and the Freak” to character sketches such as “(I'm) Ted Fucking Williams,” where the slugger laments that Mickey Mantle gets all the attention, and “Here Lies Carl Mays,” which offers a beyond-the-grave post-mortem credited to the only Major League pitcher to kill a man with a pitched ball.

“When we went full-steam ahead on our weird little labor of love…we found that writing songs about baseball was easy,” says co-writer/guitarist Steve Wynn. “There were so many things to write about. All the same subjects we write about in our day job (our regular music) apply to baseball. There's nostalgia, bad choices, humor.”

The former Dream Syndicate leader is joined by an all-star lineup of players including co-writer/bassist Scott McCaughey (Young Fresh Fellows, The Minus 5, R.E.M.), guitarist Peter Buck (R.E.M., The Minus 5) and drummer Linda Pitmon (Zuzu's Petals, Steve Wynn & the Miracle 3). Though they liked the idea of collaborating with other musicians, their busy schedules and limited recording window made that impossible on their 2008 debut, Vol. 1: Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails. They've made up for it this time. In addition to Finn, Yo La Tengo's Ira Kaplan, Death Cab for Cutie's Ben Gibbard, The Decemberists' Chris Funk and Los Lobos' Steve Berlin lend their hands.

“After the first record came out and we started touring, we found more and more musicians who were friends or people we admired or had worked with that were huge baseball fans,” Wynn says.

To those who love the sport, it's not surprising to discover the pathos and poignancy the group wrings from the game. For Red Sox fans, “Buckner's Bolero” offers a painful memory of everything that came before and contributed to their catastrophic '86 loss—Bobby Ojeda's tirade against management that got him traded, Jim Rice's failure to take an easy extra base in the game (twice), Bob Stanley's wild pitch. There are also songs like “Straw That Stirs the Drink,” which profiles Reggie Jackson's plus-size ego from his perspective, and “Twilight of My Career,” which sympathizes with Roger Clemens coming back after being cut loose from the Red Sox, providing an emotional justification of sorts for the revelations of his alleged performance-enhancing drug use.

“Every night we sing this song about the poor, poor Roger Clemens,” he says. “But it is a universal story. A guy struggling in his job makes some bad choices, then looks back and wishes he hadn't done it. It's like On the Waterfront. It's kind of [Marlon Brando's] Terry Malloy.”

Sonically, the musicians hew pretty close to the sound of their main bands, meaning McCaughey's songs tend toward a bright, roosty, power-pop ring, while Wynn gravitates toward darker-toned psych rock (minus the droning fuzz he sometimes explores). The biggest difference in writing for The Baseball Project comes from the songs themselves, which lend themselves to more of a chronicle style.

“With our own bands,” Wynn says, “there's a bit of mystery with the lyric, a little of using your imagination and giving you a clue into what's going on, but not always giving the whole story. With The Baseball Project we're storytellers laying out a moment in history. We're somewhere on the meter leaning more toward Ken Burns than Bob Dylan.”

Though basketball and football compete for our attention, they're really fall and winter sports. In Wynn's opinion, when the sun is out and the weather's warm, there's nothing better than a baseball game, and he doesn't see anything displacing it as America's favorite pastime.

“People have loved the game for 150 years; they'll keep loving it,” he says. “We're not doing this Baseball Project thing like a calculated shot at the big time. We do it because we love the game.”

The Baseball Project performs at the Turner Hall Ballroom on Saturday, May 28, with the Mike Benign Compulsion.


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