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You’d figure The Baseball Project would have exhausted its concept by now. It’s a side-project supergroup joining two inseparable dyads—Steve Wynn and his wife Linda Pitmon; Scott McCaughey and R.E.M.’s Peter Buck from the Minus 5—that plays exclusively baseball-themed material. Consider: America’s pastime, surely, can only yield so many songs; the idea probably felt pretty old pretty quickly; and isn’t there a new R.E.M. album due in a week? Why does The Baseball Project, which began in 1992 but didn’t produce an album until 2007, still exist?
The answer lies in the game itself, which has enough outsized characters and legendary (and legendarily bizarre) incidents to fuel The Baseball Project forever—well, maybe. Volume 2: High and Inside shows no discernible drop in commitment or quality from either the band’s previous output or the members’ day jobs, drawing variously on the jangle, folk rock, and power-pop they’re known for.
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As before, the best songs on High and Inside make baseball irrelevant except as the setting for ruminations on human nature and the vagaries of circumstance. Baseball-as-metaphor is treacherous ground in sportswriting, let alone rock ‘n’ roll, but McCaughey and Wynn pull it off. “1976” does it simply, using the death of a long-ago-idolized player to ponder aging, nostalgia, and the past. “Buckner’s Bolero” packs more complex issues into a song that’s sure to fall on deaf ears in Boston: It catalogs the litany of failures (not his) that culminated in Bill Buckner bobbling The Play, lists the career accomplishments overshadowed by a single error, and finally considers the upside of being a scapegoat.
Not that there isn’t room for exuberance. “Chin Music” is a happy, loping salute to the most aggressive assholes in pitcherdom. (Calling for a guitar solo, Wynn slyly murmurs, “Hit me.”) Competing team loyalties are addressed in “Fair Weather Fans,” which captures the feeling of how, say, a kid whose beloved Orioles took the 1983 World Series can swell with adult hometown pride when the Red Sox take two titles 20 years later.
While a couple of songs that are purely about baseball with no larger point—such as “Pete Rose Way,” which only hints at what made Rose such a unique character—are foul tips (sorry), others are home runs (really sorry). The garage-y, Beach Boys-esque number “Ichiro Goes to the Moon” is obsessed with specs (“a curve with a 12 to 6 dive”), but you don’t have to be a baseball fan to dig it any more than it was necessary to salivate over “She’s ported and relieved and she’s stroked and bored” to enjoy “Little Deuce Coupe.” And though the frenzied “Panda and the Freak” is nominally about nicknames, it’s so wildly celebratory that its real subject is thrilled giddiness. If you can’t relate to that, you may be missing something crucial in your own life. Even if it’s not baseball.