Even if (like me) you folded up your pennants many seasons ago, the mythology of baseball still looms large. All those heroes and goats, drunkards and arrogant assholes, magical careers and disasters that make up America's Pastime can still be plenty potent – even if the last stadium game you remember watching was when Ron (Pro's Pizza) Santo was still playing third for the Chicago Cubs.
So when alt-rock b-ball fanatics Scott (Young Fresh Fellows, Minus 5) McCaughey and Steve (Dream Syndicate) Wynn announced that they'd be releasing a disc of mythologically-minded sports songs as the Baseball Project, my interest was definitely piqued. I've followed McCaughey through several musical projects – some fruitful, some less so – but this seemed perfect for his mournful/goofy voice. Turns out I was right.
Volume One: Frozen Ropes And Dying Quails (Yep Roc) proves an elegantly rootsy collection of tall tales, gentlemanly arguments and personal reminiscences of boyhood trips to the stadium. Singer/songwriters McCaughey & Wynn, abetted by REMer Peter Buck and beatmistress Linda Pitmon, look to the sport with an acknowledgement while that the game may be past its prime (the aptly John Fogerty-inflected opener "Past Time"), it's still the source for many great yarns. Whether it's Ted Williams indulging in his own foul-mouthed brand of self-aggrandizement to a Gary Glitter-y beat or Curt Flood grousing from beyond the grave about the ungrateful benefactors of his battle against the reserve clause, Ropes' clear-eyed love for the boys of summer provides some of the strongest music that either of these two songwriters have produced in ages.
Cases in point: McCaughey's "Sometimes I Dream of Willie Mays," which ruefully recalls the times the singer saw the great Giants centerfielder at the peak and nadir of his career. There've been other songs about the baseball great (R&B pioneers the Treniers did one back in 1954, with Mays himself in the studio), but none of 'em have ever been so melancholy. Or Wynn's "Harvey Haddix," a rollicking country folk track about a guy who pitched twelve perfect innings, only to lose it in the thirteenth. "Perfection is always flawed," Wynn notes in the latter, and part of what attracts the two songwriters to this subject, one suspects, are the human aspects of their larger-than-life figures. Whether it's young Jackie Robinson chafing over being muzzled in his early years as a barrier breaking Brooklyn Dodger or Mark McGwire contemplating his more contemporary fall from grace, the Baseball Project grasps its subjects in a way that even sports neophytes can recognize.
Good music; great stories – looking forward to Volume Two.