Baseball Project's latest album touches 'em all
Tales of Aaron, Ruth, Dykstra, Cy Young and Dale Murphy highlight '3rd'
The fuzzed-out opening lead guitar riff and the explosion of jangly alt-country melody as the rest of the band joins creates the sound of a vintage number off one of R.E.M.'s classic albums from the 1980s "college rock" days.
Then you hear the lyrics, describing a Dominican right-hander's fateful trip around (and around and around) Interstate 285 on his way to a start for the Atlanta Braves on Aug. 19, 1982.
If you didn't know what "Pascual on the Perimeter" was about just by reading the title, well, you know now.
Perez ran out of gas in a borrowed car while trying like crazy to navigate the Atlanta loop locals call "The Perimeter" and didn't quite make it to the ballpark on time. Meanwhile, the members of the rock band known as The Baseball Project, who just released their third full-length album of songs all about the national pastime, were connected to the moment enough to wax poetic about it in song all these years later.
"Driving up from Athens to a gig at the 688 [Club]," sings drummer Linda Pitmon. "Listening to Skip Caray, wondering why Phil Niekro was starting in his place."
The attention to detail pervades 3rd, the latest and most fully-formed effort from The Baseball Project, a rock supergroup formed in 2007 by seamhead industry veterans Steve Wynn (The Dream Syndicate) and Scott McCaughey (R.E.M., Young Fresh Fellows, Minus Five), with Pitmon (Steve Wynn and the Miracle 3) and R.E.M. legends Peter Buck and Mike Mills also lending their skills to the roster throughout the seasons.
The band members have spent lifetimes in music and in awe of baseball and the game's history and nuances. When they've got down time in the tour buses or hotel rooms or backstage lounges of concert halls where they ply their trade night by night, they write songs for The Baseball Project.
And there's nothing in foul territory when it comes to subject matter. As long as it in some way involves a white ball with red stitches, it will be ruled fair.
"It could be a heart-rending ballad with a true story, like Carl Mays, or we can make up a ridiculous song, or we can rant about something that's bugging us, or we can make up a fictional story," McCaughey says.
"As long as it's a good song and it has to do with baseball, it's wide-open."
The band's first album, Volume One: Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails, had songs about Curt Flood, Satchel Paige, Ted Williams, Jack McDowell, Fernando Valenzuela, Ed Delahanty, Sandy Koufax, Harvey Haddix, Jackie Robinson, Mark McGwire and McCaughey's favorite player, Willie Mays.
The follow-up, Volume 2: High and Inside dropped in time for Spring Training in 2011 and included guest stars such as Craig Finn of the Hold Steady (lead vocals and lyrics on "Don't Call Them Twinkies") and Ben Gibbard of Death Cab For Cutie, who contributed to "Ichiro Goes to the Moon." Other tunes on the sophomore album were "Panda and the Freak," about Giants heroes Pablo Sandoval and Tim Lincecum, and musical studies of Mark Fidrych, Bill Buckner, Pete Rose, Reggie Jackson, Carl Mays, Tony Conigliaro, fair-weather fans, pitchers throwing at batters and more.
Now there's 3rd, and The Baseball Project has added Mills and become incredibly prolific. The band has stretched the material into a double (album), as it turns out, and the songwriters have mined a lot more hardball history for their topics.
There are songs about legends (Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth and Cy Young), a few "experimental" tracks, such as album opener "Stats," which is an instrumental number with famous baseball numbers (Aaron's 715 home runs, Young's 511 wins, and Cal Ripken Jr.'s 2,632 consecutive games played, for example) being spoken out loud by Pitmon over the music.
Other subjects include the hysterical highway travails of Perez; the off-the-field troubles of Lenny Dykstra ("From Nails to Thumbtacks"); Cuban players in the big leagues ("¡Hola America!"); famed baseball character Dock Ellis; the amazing, low-payroll-but-high-winning-percentage Oakland A's; paeans to Monument Park, baseball cards and baseball metaphors for romance; little-known stories such as Larry Yount; and a passionate push, from Braves fan Mills, for Dale Murphy to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame ("To The Veterans Committee").
And then there's something else, despite the novelty of the subject matter: There's a real rock band playing good rock songs very well.
"I think we're more cohesive, now that there are five of us, with Mike in the mix," McCaughey said. "We're playing a lot together, we're touring around, and we can really hit the songs hard with five of us in there.
"We're just used to all of it and just getting more and more comfortable."
In other words, if anyone is under the impression that The Baseball Project is really a fleeting vanity project, they couldn't be more off base. This band is here to stay.
"It's funny," McCaughey says. "I was doing an interview the other day and someone said, 'You at least have to do nine albums.' And I don't think there's any sign of us slowing up. As long as there's baseball, there's stories, from history or from what's happening now.
"Every season you get more things to write about."