Volume 1: Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails – The Baseball Project
Yep Roc Records
Okay, Sufjan Stevens’ concept-albums-as-civic-lessons are cute and lovely and a decent ruse, but that’s because Stevens is a generally talented songwriter, not because anyone is really interested in learning about Illinois or Michigan through song so much as hearing Stevens leverage that into achy stunningness like ‘Casimir Pulaski Day.’ (At least I’m not. You?) The Baseball Project’s Volume 1: Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails, by legendary dream-poppers Steve Wynn and Scott McCaughey (along with REM’s Peter Buck), takes the opposite attack. It really is about baseball.
From the top of "National Pasttime," where Wynn and McCaughey reel off an overture of baseball lore, their particular type of fandom and attention to obscurity is instantly graspable. "31 wins and an album on Capitol for Denny McLain," they sing of the former Tiger (though Wikipedia says he made two albums). It is baseball not merely as a series of home run hitters, World Series victors, and great diving catches, but as a nearly endless sequence of characters whose personalities manifest themselves on the game-as-played, and the way that particular version of baseball fits into the world around it.
"Gratitude (For Curt Flood)"—from the perspective of the All-Star outfielder who fought baseball’s reserve clause all the way to the Supreme Court with a gravitas grown from the philosophical implications of the "agency" part of "free agency"—is a muted stomp. "You can say I cheated; prop me up defeated," they sing as beleaguered juicer Mark McGwire. "There’s a street not far away that’s named after me, but my present and future is a gated community."
Nostalgia is the driving force throughout, and so unapologetically that—at least if one is willing to buy the conceit of a baseball concept album (that is, somebody who likes indie rock and baseball, a lot)—it totally ceases to become an issue. But that’s still a pretty small target audience. "Sometimes I dream of Willie Mays, and the sun comes out and the fog lifts and he’s there," Wynn sings on "Sometimes I Dream of Willie Mays." The music matches the sentiment throughout. It is jangling guitar rock, respectable and melodic, but never reaching beyond itself. The Baseball Project is folk music twinkling with psychedelic dew via chiming 12-strings guitars, some hot solos ("The Death of Big Ed Delahanty") (he fell into Niagara Falls), bar riffs ("Ted Fucking Williams"). And it is good fun. At least enough to fill a minor league ballpark.