Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Music Review - The Baseball Project - Vol. 1: Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails

As the story goes, in 1992 Steve Wynn (Dream Syndicate) and Scott McCaughey (Minus 5 and Young Fresh Fellows) met for the first time in the bathroom of a concert venue in Seattle. They eventually discovered a shared interest in baseball and planned to create an album that focused on the sport’s history and players. Of such chance and borderline sanitary encounters are great ideas born.

15 years later – the duration of some American League games these days – the duo began writing and recording the album that would finally be released in 2008 as Vol. 1: Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails. Rounded out with drummer Linda Pitmon (Giant Smog) and Peter Buck (you know the band), the album contains mostly narrative songs about baseball’s history and folklore, and, variously, its legendary, eccentric, or otherwise tragic players. Incorporating musical styles like folk, pop, and indie (the haunting and melodic song “Fernando” includes a bit of each), the album is alternately humorous and poignant.

On its surface, the album is a true geekfest for hardcore baseball fans, who might enjoy the album more than those not familiar with the players and stories recalled in the songs. If the number of obscure players recounted here is any indication, Wynn and McCaughey clearly know their baseball past and present and could probably field a seriously badass fantasy team. “Harvey Haddix” is a damn funny tune that questions the definition of success and name checks all 17 pitchers who have thrown a perfect game. It’s probably also the first time Cy Young and Addie Joss have been mentioned in the same song. Another song explores the death of Ed Delahanty, a big swinging, hard-drinking, and skull-busting player who died under mysterious circumstances at Niagara Falls in 1903. Songs about more widely-known figures like Satchel Paige, Ted Williams, and Jackie Robinson provide some relief for those with only a cursory knowledge of the game’s history.

Yet it’s not accurate to dismiss the album as a pure vanity or one-off project solely about baseball. Many of the songs evoke larger themes and universal emotions by simply using baseball’s history and mythology as a backdrop.

Several songs explore how a public figure’s persona and legacy are shaped by both fellow players and the public. “Gratitude (for Curt Flood)” is written from the point of view of the former Cardinals player, who successfully challenged the reserve clause that prevented players from becoming free agents. And boy, is he pissed; the song finds Flood unrecognized, unappreciated, and ignored by the game’s current millionaires: “On the day that I died and they laid me in the ground where was everybody? They couldn’t be found. I’m gone and they don’t know my name. No plaque, no speech, no hall of fame.”

Similarly, “Broken Man” takes a largely sympathetic approach to the story of former slugger and hulking wall of muscle Mark McGwire, who went from being baseball’s savior as he chased and eventually shattered Roger Maris’ home run record in 1998 to an outcast after his evasive and embarrassing showing during the Senate’s steroid investigation confirmed his guilt to many.

Other songs are heavily saturated with nostalgia and mortality. Opening track “Past Time” invokes the names of players from past eras and subtly questions baseball’s relevance in our current era (and also features a nice rhyme of “the Dimaggios, Shoeless Joe, Minnie Minoso, and Yo La Tengo”). “Long Before My Time” finds a still-young Sandy Koufax aged beyond his 30 years, struggling to decide whether to retire and questioning what the game has really given him: “The summer game has let me down, standing lonely on the mound. A crossroads only I can see between oblivion and destiny.”

Standout track “Sometimes I Dream of Willie Mays” continues these themes as it contrasts the narrator’s fond memories of going to games with his father to see Mays in his 1965 prime with seeing Mays in 1973, when the outfielder’s skills had greatly diminished. It’s a layered and complex song; the narrator looks back at these games with both fondness and a twinge of sadness. The aging figure of Mays serves as a reminder that those days are long gone.

The album’s liner notes and design also deserve mention. The liner notes provide sufficient historical background to the songs and thus add much-needed information for those who don’t know Frank Viola from Frankie Valli; after all, Harvey Haddix and Ed Delahanty aren’t exactly household names. The album’s design is likewise superb. Clever without being overly cute, the back cover lists the song order like a manager’s lineup card, and also has each band member’s name included on their own vintage Topps baseball card (in the uniform of each member’s hometown team, no less).

As a concept album about baseball, Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails is filled with enough baseball lore to make even Peter Gammons giddy. What makes it truly succeed is its ability to convey larger themes that extend far beyond the confines of the game.

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