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Springtime for baseball, autumn for defense?
The Autumn Defense
(Yep Roc Records)
During the last several years, the band Wilco has arguably experienced a drop in quality since the occurrence of two probably interconnected events: the departure of Jay Bennett, and the increasing influence of principal songwriter Jeff Tweedy.
In fact, the band these days might as well be called the Jeff Tweedy Experience because that’s virtually all you get with a new release from these guys. And if you are terminally addicted to Tweedy’s self-absorbed, modern-day singer-songwriter confessionals, you are probably quite satisfied with this result.
However, long-time Wilco bassist John Stirratt and Wilco utility player Pat Sansone’s side project The Autumn Defense has just released its fifth full-length album, pithily entitled Fifth, and the difference between side project and main band is becoming a challenge to distinguish.
The Autumn Defense began life as a way for Sirratt and Sansone to explore their mutual fascination with studio production and early-’70s California rock: sunshine, oceans, harmonies, gentle guitars and soothing keyboards rule the day here. Reference points are bands like America, Bread, and the Carpenters. These were melody-heavy groups that concentrated on the softer side of the rock scene.
And after four albums and an EP, The Autumn Defense have kicked up the juice a bit on Fifth —although they still aren’t exactly Led Zeppelin. Nevertheless, the band does rock a bit more than usual, and the tempos on many songs actually approach dance speed for once. All of which indicates a bit more effort being put forth and possibly more attention or ambition going into the group, suggesting a movement from side-band status to main concern.
There are several tracks to isolate and call attention to: Sansone’s Roger McGuin-like “Things on My Mind” utilizes classic 12-string guitar lines and ’60s-style handclaps to evoke a late-period Byrds feel. “The Light in Your Eyes” resembles Syd Barret writing a alt-country song through the lens of S.F. Sorrow-era Pretty Things. (Mellotrons on modern records will always excite me personally.)
A very obvious comparison for The Autumn Defense and Wilco would be the career of George Harrison in the wake of Lennon and McCartney’s tidal wave, and like that comparison, many will find Sirratt and Sansone to be preferable to the main group’s output. Wilco is still a major force in the concert scene, but may be losing steam creatively since the highwater mark of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
But it might be said The Autumn Defense is just now hitting its stride,which makes that group the one to be watching. Personally, I’m looking forward to Sixth.
The Baseball Project
(Yep Roc Records)
Once upon a time, baseball used to be America’s favorite pastime, and for The Baseball Project, which features a who’s who litany of ’80s alternative rock heros, the game that Abner Doubleday did not actually invent is still a source of inspiration.
In fact, it’s because such lore surrounds the game that Steve Wynn and Scott McCaughey have found cause to release 3rd, the latest Baseball Project album, which lyrically explores the myriad stories associated with the game and its many illustrious players. Wynn is ex-Dream Syndicate, one of Los Angleles’ leading lights of the misleadingly titled Paisley Underground movement. McCaughey first surfaced nationally in Seattle’s Young Fresh Fellows, and the pair are supported by pals Peter Buck and Mike Mills from some band or another and drummer Linda Pitmon.
Musically, the group seems to draw somewhat equally on all the members’ influences, and now with Mills on bass, Buck has moved over to guitar to form a three-layer guitar attack that creates quite the rock and roll racket—but never loses a keen sense of pop melody. The guitars are tough, slashing and live. This band verges on punk rock intensity.
But it’s in the lyrics that The Baseball Project makes its mark, and they offer what amounts to an intense seminar in the history of a game that has marked many of America’s milestones. There’s “They Don’t Know Henry”, which documents Hank Aaron’s internal struggle in chasing Babe Ruth’s lauded home run record.
The amusing “The Day Doc Went Hunting Heads” features the tale of Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Doc Ellis’ 1974 meltdown, wherin he attempted to bean every member of the Cincinnati Reds. Take that Big Red Machine! “They Played Baseball” is a laundry list of baseball’s many spectacular players who were simutaneously lousy human beings. Wynn even includes a love letter to his baseball card collection.
It’s not a prerequiste, though, to be a baseball fan to enjoy the albums The Baseball Project has been producing since 2008. In fact, I would guess that’s part of the idea. These musicians clearly love a game they grew up with and have a sense of allegiance to, and possess a sense of duty to share these stories, and hence their passion, with the rest of the world.
And they make a very compelling case indeed.