(Artwork by V. Cullum Rogers)
America's Pastime is a part of the fabric of "traditional America," while alternative rock is a fairly recent development that few in the "baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet" set would just as soon ignore.
The two have more in common than it at first seems. Unless they're Yankee fans, good baseball aficionados appreciate "Little Engine That Could" stories (the 1969 Miracle Mets), lovable losers (the last 103 years of Chicago Cubs history), fallen heroes (Pete Rose, Roger Clemens) and one-hit wonders (Mark "The Bird" Fidrych). These are the stories alternative bands tell best. The heroes are flawed, but once in a while they get it right.
So it's really a wonder no one thought to combine the two before 2007. But that's when the seeds of the Baseball Project were planted. Indie rock veterans Scott McCaughey (The Young Fresh Fellows, The Minus 5) and Steve Wynn (Dream Syndicate) bonded over a baseball conversation one night in 2007. The following year, they enlisted Peter Buck (R.E.M.) and Linda Pitmon to record "Volume One: Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails."
What they made was a delightful debut album filled with smart baseball talk and wonderful, jangly guitar pop.
For "Volume 2: High and Inside," they've again mined the annals of a century and a half of professional baseball for some more great stories to tell.
The album kicks off with "1976," about Fidrych's magical rookie season, as recalled by a fan upon the news of his 2009 death. It's a bittersweet remembrance of a pitcher who only had one great season. Yet he was such an unexpected and colorful character, he's remembered fondly 35 years later.
The album also explores great players who fell hard, including Rose in "The Pete Rose Way" and Clemens in "Twilight of My Career," and imagines a alternate reality where Bill Buckner isn't an all-time scapegoat in "Buckner's Bolero." They also get a bit more modern with "Panda and the Freak" and "Ichiro Goes to the Moon."
On an album in which the band enlists a number of friends, including Death Cab for Cutie's Ben Gibbard, Los Lobos' Steve Berlin, The Decemberists' Chris Funk and John Moen and Yo La Tengo's Ira Kaplan, the most notable performance comes from The Hold Steady's Craig Finn, who wrote and sang "Please Don't Call Them Twinkies." Like Pitmon, Finn is Minnesota native and huge Twins fan. The song gives a brief history of the franchise, which seems to fit Finn's typical songwriting style. Finn seems to say on behalf of all Twins fans, "Look, we aren't always winners, but when we do, it's worth it."
The record also gets a bit more tragic with "Tony (Boston's Chosen Son)" and "Here Lies Carl Mays." The latter is a haunting lament sung by the only pitcher to throw a ball that killed another player.
My spin: A-
Sometimes sad, sometimes joyful, "High and Inside" is a good project throughout. It gives another heavy dose of the witty and melodic songwriting music and baseball fans came to expect following the debut album.
With opening day just around the corner, the new album, released March 1 on Yep Roc, is a great way to kick off another season America's Pastime.