Thursday, June 15, 2023

The Baseball Project: “Grand Salami Time!” (2023) CD Review

Baseball season is the best time of the year, no question about it. And even though the powers that be keep screwing with the game (adding the pitch clock, not having the pitcher throw the four balls for intentional walks, etc.), baseball is still the best sport. And The Baseball Project celebrates the game and its players not only with its name, but also with its material. The band’s first album, released in 2008, included songs like “Satchel Paige Said” and “Ted Fucking Williams.” The second album contained “Buckner’s Bolero” and “Tony (Boston’s Chosen Son),” and the third included songs like “The Baseball Card Song” and “Extra Inning Of Love.” In fact, every song they write is about some aspect of the game. That third album was released in 2014, and it was the last studio release until now, nearly a decade later. Grand Salami Time! finds the band is top form, giving us a new soundtrack for our trips to the ballpark, and for the time spent in between. Even if you’ve not heard this band, you know these musicians. The band is made up of Peter Buck (of R.E.M.) on guitar; Scott McCaughey (of The Minus 5) on guitar, keyboard and vocals; Mike Mills (of R.E.M.) on bass and vocals; Linda Pitmon (of Zuzu’s Petals and Filthy Friends) on drums, percussion and backing vocals; and Steve Wynn (of The Dream Syndicate) on guitar and vocals. There are special guests on a few tracks, and you know those folks as well. Mitch Easter, who produced the early R.E.M. albums, co-produced this release with the band.

The album kicks off with its title track, “Grand Salami Time,” which has a great energy, the same kind of energy the crowd has when a grand slam is hit by the home team. And the band takes on the role of the game announcer, singing “Going back, at the track, at the wall… see ya!” And it’s about the various catch phrases that have developed around the game through use by announcers, some of which are just silly. This song has a funny ending. It was written by Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey. That’s followed by “The Yips.” This one rocks right from the start, with a fantastic punk energy, yet it’s about a player struggling to perform the most routine plays, such as throwing from second to first. We’ve all seen it – a second baseman throws the ball into the dugout. “Everything that came so easily before, why can’t I do it again?” the player laments in this song. This track is a whole lot of fun, and features some great stuff on guitar. Steve Wynn wrote this one.

You never really see pitchers throw the screwball anymore, and the band’s song “Screwball” gets into this lost art. Its lyrics mention some of the pitchers who did throw the ball, including Rube Waddell, Mike Marshall and Tug McGraw. But the song is also about some of the oddballs of baseball, and of course Rube Waddell fits into that category as well. And though the band mispronounces the word “formidable” (the stress should be on the first syllable) in order to make it better rhyme with “unhittable,” this song is a delight. I particularly appreciate these lines: “Screwball, being different is weird/Out of place, like a Yank with a beard.” This one was written by Scott McCaughey. That’s followed by “Uncle Charlie.” The band includes a few sentences about each of the songs in the disc’s liner notes, and for this one explains that an “Uncle Charlie” was a term for the curveball. Here they sing, “Uncle Charlie is gonna get you/Uncle Charlie is gonna send you down.” Mitch Easter plays guitar on this track. In addition to producing the early R.E.M. albums, Easter is also known for his work in the band Let’s Active. This song was written by Peter Buck and Steve Wynn.

A journeyman in baseball is a player who plays for many different teams throughout his career, not staying with any one team for very long. That does not mean he isn’t a good player, just that he can’t quite find a home. As the band sings in “Journeyman,” “I do one thing well, I won’t let you down.” This song has a somewhat softer sound, fitting for its subject. “Always keep my bags packed/Never get too close to anyone/Long as there’s someone who needs me/Down the road I’ll go.” Stephen McCarthy plays lap steel on this track, and Mitch Easter plays guitar. “Journeyman” was written by Peter Buck and Steve Wynn. In the liner notes, the band indicates that “Erasable Man” was inspired by Josh Gibson, who many considered to be the best player in the Negro League, a player who never was given the chance to play in the Major Leagues. This is a great, hard-hitting song, written by Scott McCaughey. And Steve Berlin (of Los Lobos) joins the band on baritone saxophone for this one, delivering some excellent stuff. Also composed by Scott McCaughey is “New Oh In Town,” this one celebrating a current baseball player, Shohei Ohtani, who is that rare player who is a fantastic pitcher and hitter both. You know, like Babe Ruth, that kind of rarity. I made it to a couple of Angels games this season (when the Red Sox were in town), but sadly did not get to see him pitch. In this song, they also sing about Sadaharu Oh, a former ball player. Like Shohei Ohtani himself, this song rocks.

The band turns to more of a disco sound for “Disco Demolition,” a song that is about a specific doubleheader held on July 12, 1979 at Comiskey Park in Chicago, when as a gimmick, a crate of disco records was detonated on the field between games. Crazy. The second game was never played, as a whole lot of people stormed the field and started throwing records and beer and whatever else they got their hands on. I absolutely love the percussion on this one, and that instrumental section in the second half is fantastic. This song was written by Steve Wynn. That’s followed by “Stuff.” This one has a strangely dark, kind of eerie vibe. It is told from the perspective of a pitcher, who brags that he’s got “stuff” and takes us into his confidence. I love the way that very word, “Stuff,” is delivered. When we hear that a pitcher has his stuff, we think of it meaning that all his pitches are working well, but here it also means something actually placed on the ball. Check out these lines: “Now Gaylord Perry, he liked to spit on the ball/The trainer keeps mine in a box down the hall/Just like Brylcreem, a little dab will do ya/I use that L.A. look to try and fool ya.” This track is so cool, and is one of my favorites. It was written by Mike Mills.

“The All Or Nothings” comes on strong, with a great punk energy. This one is about that hitter that we know all too well, the guy who gets home runs, but also strikes out a lot. He is a very frustrating player to watch, for it seems that in the clutch he strikes out. Also, this guy can’t do the little things in baseball that make the game more exciting. Yeah, I hate the all or nothing players. And from the sound of this song, it seems the band feels the same way. This song was written by Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey. That’s followed by “That’s Living,” which has more of a folk vibe. It’s about Jose Fernandez, a Marlins pitcher who died in 2016 (that was the year of death, remember?) in a boating crash, and it’s about how we all take chances when we’re young. Many of us get away with such behavior, but some don’t. “But a life of caution isn’t for the young/You only get a little time, ya gotta have a lot of fun/The way you push the limits and test the edge/Without those moments you may as well be dead.” And I love the phrase “life’s short season.” Wow, that is great, that is powerful. This song was written by Steve Wynn, and is another of my favorites.

I have read a lot of books about baseball, but one of the first that I read was also one of the best, Jim Bouton’s Ball Four. The Baseball Project’s “64 And 64” is about Bouton, and how he won both his starts in the 1964 World Series, and about the fallout from his book. Check out these lines: “I wasn’t quite a writer, Yankees weren’t big readers/Men or overgrown teenagers, night hunting for beaver/Loafers, scufflers and hicks, hungover greenie eaters/Good ball players too, bad swingers and wife cheaters.” This one moves at a much slower pace, and features some nice work on keys. It was written by Scott McCaughey. That is followed by “Having Fun.” I am a big Red Sox fan, and one thing about that 2004 team, they were having a ton of fun, from April right through the World Series. A real group of characters, those guys. And they were fun to watch. This song is about how baseball is a game, and how it should be fun. The song asks, “When did it get so serious?” A good question. This one was written by Steve Wynn.

I have never got involved in fantasy baseball, but I have friends who are totally into it. “Fantasy Baseball Widow” is about the joys of fantasy baseball, taking into account the wives of the men who play fantasy baseball. Like the wife in this song, I prefer the real thing. This track was written by Steve Wynn, and features some really nice work on drums. The album concludes with “The Voice Of Baseball.” I’m glad I moved to Los Angeles when I did, for it meant I got to watch a lot of Dodgers games announced by Vin Scully. He was the absolute best announcer in sports, not just baseball. I didn’t even care about the Dodgers, I just liked listening to him. And he didn’t need anyone with him; there was no “color” guy, and in this song they mention that. Vin Scully had a lot of information to share with the audience, but he also allowed the sounds of the game to be enough at times, not feeling a need to fill every second with talk, the way a lot of these guys do. By comparison, when I would watch Angels games around that same time, I used to mute the television, because the “color” guy, Rex Hudler, was so fucking obnoxious. “The Voice Of Baseball” was written by Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey. “‘Cause he’s not just the voice of the Dodgers/Not just the voice of the Dodgers/His was the voice of baseball.”

CD Track List

  1. Grand Salami Time
  2. The Yips
  3. Screwball
  4. Uncle Charlie
  5. Journeyman
  6. Erasable Man
  7. New Oh In Town
  8. Disco Demolition
  9. Stuff
  10. The All Or Nothings
  11. That’s Living
  12. 64 And 64
  13. Having Fun
  14. Fantasy Baseball Widow
  15. The Voice Of Baseball

Grand Salami Time! is scheduled to be released on June 30, 2023 through Omnivore Recordings.

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