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January 9, 2013
Baseball, Power Pop, and Playing Against the Limits
Across the nation every sports bar turns the pregame on
Compulsive formalists can't fabricate meaning--by which I mean nothing deeper than extrinsic interest--without a frame.
January. Unless the fortunes of Kyle Lohse or the Hall of Fame bid of Alan Trammell have you riveted to the screen—fair enough—it’s time to let baseball breathe a little. Change the reels. Give it a soundtrack.
Steven Goldman: Kind of obscure, but there's a group called Cotton Mather, not sure that they're still around, whose 1997 album "Kon-Tiki" sounds a great deal like the Beatles "Rubber Soul." Check out the tunes "My Before and After" and "She's Only Cool."
For years, I had been a regular reader of Goldman’s Pinstriped Bible column on the YES Network web site, so I (and, apparently, “casey (cal)”)knew him to be a connoisseur of pop music. But the Cotton Mather reference stopped me short, because a) they really were pretty obscure, and b) they happen to have made two of my very favorite albums in the post-Beatles, power-pop universe: the aforementioned Kontiki and its successor, The Big Picture, a beautiful Sahara of an album released in 2002.
And then they broke up. Thus they were not, in 2010, at the time of Goldman’s mention, “still around.” But that’s beside the point. Goldman’s recommendation, buried in a chat ostensibly about baseball, stuck with me, as has Cotton Mather—to the extent that I nearly flew the band’s leader, Robert Harrison, to my wedding last year just to have him play just a single song. (Not his own. I had my finger on the “Purchase” button on an airline’s web site.)
Flash forward, late July, 2012. Bill Doss of The Olivia Tremor Control passes away, only 43 years old. Olivia Tremor Control, an Athens, Georgia band, released Dusk at Cubist Castle in 1996, right around the same time as Cotton Mather delivered Kontiki. Both albums were recorded DIY-style and then polished up after the fact. These two albums are among the best of a mid-1990s golden age of what “casey (cal)” called “Beatles copycat/ripoff bands.”
Doss’s passing naturally stirred up renewed interest in Olivia Tremor Control. Not long after that, on the very same day, August 11, Bradley Ankrom and Dan Brooks tweeted about Sloan (Ben Lindbergh’s favorite active band) and Apples in Stereo, respectively—more stars of the genre. (Okay, “stars,” since power pop doesn’t exactly move major units under Soundscan.) As it happens, Doss joined Apples in Stereo as its keyboardist around 2006. And the Sloan song that Ankrom tweeted about came out in 1994, right during the same boom time that produced Kontiki and Cubist Castle.)
That’s (at least) five BP writers with a fondness for the same marginal music genre known as power pop. Right around the same time in August, I stumbled on an SB Nation baseball column by Jason Brannan called “Power Pop Friday,” which referenced Myracle Brah, and then Hardball Talk’s Craig Calcaterra tweeted something about the legendary Alex Chilton. (If you want to argue that in fact some of this music is really “neo-psychedelia” and some “power pop,” be my guest, but that’s making a too-nice distinction, I think. It’s all anchored in the same water.)
At that point, it became clear that we had gone deeper than coincidence, deeper than trend, even deeper than “critical mass” or the “tipping point” or whatever phenomenological label you want to slap on what appears to be the weather over a particular landscape. No, it became clear that power pop isn’t the weather, it’s part of the terrain. It lives, properly, down in the bedrock of baseball.
We’ll drill down into that foundation, but first: What’s power pop? A quick tour, for the uninitiated. You can argue about when and where exactly the genre was born, but it got its breath on the route from Abbey Road, in the vehicle of Badfinger’s “No Matter What,” to Todd Rundgren’s “Couldn’t I Just Tell You” (from the 1972 monument Something/Anything?) and Big Star’s “Back of A Car.” (Actually, both of Big Star’s first two albums are power pop landmarks, especially Radio City, which no less an authority than Game Theory frontman Scott Miller, who wrote the lyrics in the above epigraph, speculates might be “the best album not by the Beatles.”)
You’ll notice that the first song is by a British band, and the second two by American musicians. Apologies to Teenage Fanclub and their fellow Anglos, and an allowance that what we recognize as power pop has unmistakably English roots not only in the Beatles, but also in the Who and the Kinks (check out Happy Jack/A Quick One and any of the Kinks’ late-sixties and early-seventies albums). Its forebears notwithstanding, power pop is an American idiom. If you wanted to pull off a sweet analogy, you might try showing how power pop is to pop as baseball is to cricket. In fact, the analogy may very well be quite apt, but I don’t recall anything about cricket beyond the payoff scene in the underrated John Boorman movie Hope and Glory when the Dad is amazed that his young son has learned how to throw (bowl? serve?) a pitch called a “googly,” which research suggests is more or less what American baseball adepts know as a screwball.
Power pop has harder edges than just-plain pop. It has louder, toothier guitars, punchier drums and, usually, a slightly higher drive and tempo (think Cheap Trick). It strains harder, is more effortful. You can hear it trying harder, and you can see the rags and tears on its sonic canvas. The chat participant “casey (cal)” picks the right phrase: “Beatles copycat/ripoff band.” But it’s apt as much for the word “ripoff” as the word “Beatles”: there’s the sound, in power pop, of ripping, grating, biting. One of the memes you often hear about Big Star’s Radio City has to do with the “bite” on the guitars. Closer inspection reveals that this bite owes much to the astonishing control of the mixing board in post-production by a wizard named John Fry. (Scott Miller: “The sound engineering of Radio City, its sheer management of tremendous energy in the high end, is incredible.”) Fry spent the mixing sessions literally taking apart, cutting and rebuilding little pieces of the equipment in order to expand its capacity, pushing one machine right to the edge of its breaking point, overheating it and then drawing it back down again. Power pop is music that plays against limits.
But enough of that. The best way to understand power pop is to listen to it, so do that if you’re unfamiliar with the genre. The question under consideration here is: What’s the connection between baseball and power pop?
Perhaps it’s best to start by setting power pop off against another kind of music, and also to hear it in the context of two competing ways of watching baseball. I have a very vivid memory from many years ago (around the time the song quoted in the epigraph was recorded) of an episode of Late Night with David Letterman on which one of the guests was George Will. Will was then pushing his baseball study, Men At Work (an engaging and persuasive book, if I recall). Letterman asked Will about the book’s premise, and Will began by replying with words close to: “I hate it when people say baseball reminds them of their father.”
Now there’s a Fort Sumter shot in baseball’s civil war, the war that pits the Mom/Apple Pie/Chevrolet confederacy against the essentially Abolitionist union of progressives. To put this in musical terms, it’s kind of Springsteen versus Chilton (they both got started around the same time, the early 1970s). Or, if you want to move forward into the heyday of power pop—which I’d argue was the 1990s—you can set off Kontiki and its ilk against the nostalgia-drenched music known as Americana (or “alt-Country”).
There’s nothing wrong with a little Uncle Tupelo in the car, even if all it did was send you scurrying back to R.E.M.’s Reckoning or Neil Young’s Tonight’s the Night (or the Stanley Brothers and Phil Ochs, for that matter). But I always thought you could locate the baseball divide more or less at the same longitude that separated the guys singing about politics, cars, hometowns and drink. On one side you have the Americana guys: the Mom/Apple Pie/Chevrolet complex; the guys who are always thinking, in one way or another, of their fathers; the Springsteen slipstream; the faded pastime people, even the Peculiar Institution people. (Note how much Americana is deeply conservative and ideologically Southern.) On the other side are often studio obsessives drawing rivers of hot-blooded harmonies, penumbral longings, and compressed guitar spectacles from the rigid stone of song structure, from an almost unforgivingly constant sonic palette, and from rules of musical expression the Beatles made 50 years ago.
We can dig deeper (we’re Baseball Prospectus!). To begin to get at it, let’s return to the top: the second of the epigraphs. “Compulsive formalists can't fabricate meaning—by which I mean nothing deeper than extrinsic interest—without a frame.” So writes Robert Christgau, the self-professed “dean of music critics” (hard to argue).
Baseball, like power pop, is a compulsively formalist game. (XTC has a song called “Complicated Game.” Also, don’t blame me if you click on this link and listen to another XTC song from the same year, “Making Plans for Nigel,” and can’t get it out of your head for several weeks.) Basketball and football thrive on freestyling and improvisation and even chaos: Michael Jordan’s famous shrug after hitting six three-pointers and scoring 35 points in the first half of Game 1 of the 1992 NBA Finals; Franco Harris’s “Immaculate Reception.” Basketball is jazz, football is some sort of religious war.
It’s important that the music of baseball be not just pop. Without the power, it’s an almost twee game. Power pop adds muscle and volume to pop’s earlier identity. The game and the genre don’t get enough credit for how much sheer force and strength are required to play them. Ninety miles an hour is a routine speed here; a weapon as assaultive as a bat is a basic tool of the trade. Pit any baseball player with the customary available gear against most other major-sport athletes and their equipment (hockey is an exception when it’s actually being, you know, played), and the baseball player would win any fight. I’ve seen power pop shows that pinned my ears back, and the sheer controlled racket pinned me to the figurative back wall of the venue. The lineup of Guided By Voices—technically, but immaterially, Robert Pollard solo—that included Tommy Keene on guitar, the drummer from Superchunk and the bassist from Verbow would have just about flattened everyone in the room had the band not done the opposite: sent them into orbit.
Baseball has its unexpected, accident-driven highlights, but the sport is austere in its unwavering, repetitive adherence to form. It has its frame—that diamond—and it has its frames, too: those innings. You have to make your music in baseball out of a very precise, narrow, angular geometry. It is actually hard to improvise in baseball, even if you want to, and virtually no one wants to. Things must nearly always be done in a particular, predetermined way, otherwise: failure. Baseball is a game of inches, and for that matter circles; football is a march given comic color by the way the oddly-shaped ball bounces; basketball is largely the exploitation of (and compensating for) purely physical mismatches. Only baseball can be said not to conform to the essential thinking of this tweet:
And there again is a concise way of separating baseball from other sports. Rigorous, punctual despite its clocklessness, unforgiving of deviation, baseball is (like power pop) almost formulaic. The way both arts succeed is by chance operations (aleatory procedures) within formulas, operations which result in incremental gains and in felt tensions between structural demands and wild-card disobediences. (Check out the galvanizing open-tuned guitar break on Rundgren’s otherwise by-the-book “Couldn’t I Just Tell You.”) Scott Miller and his post-Game Theory band, The Loud Family, occasionally deployed “Oblique Strategies,” a rather ingenious system, built by art-pop god Brian Eno, of forcing the artist to make music, almost fooling him into doing so, by surprising his received thought process.
Much of the above is why baseball’s (and power pop’s) detractors call the sport (music) boring, dry, unemotional, and soulless. (It’s not as TV-friendly; that’s part of it.) Football and basketball are heavy on emotion and special effects—that is, on “extrinsic interest”: cheerleaders, blaring music, jumbotrons the size of jumbojets, the whole mass-marketed phenomenon of Monday Night Football. The taunting, the technical fouls, the unnecessary roughness, the roof-raising and chalk-tossing, the end zone celebrations (finally ratified as extrinsic spectacle when the refs throw flags penalizing them); the two-minute warning, the halftime shows, the Super Bowl ads, the dancing girls, the two-minute warning, the clock ticking down in agonizing tenths of seconds; the buzzer-beaters, the buzzer-beaters, the buzzer-beaters: that is, time—the ultimate extrinsic interest.
In baseball, of course, emotion is forced down, forced down, forced down by the clamp of the game’s mechanics: every play is followed by a diamond-restoring reset. (Odd that you can say the same of football, yet football’s huddle somehow seems extrinsic, as well: deflated, without tension, something you just have to get through on your way to the next play. As George Will put it, football is instances of gratuitous violence followed by committee meetings.) Stoicism, reserve, even a kind of habitual reluctance, are baseball’s behavioral watchwords. Compare that to basketball and football, in which even routine plays are met with outsized outbursts and all manner of meretricious jumping around. Not even a home run—baseball’s cardinal big play—tends to rouse that much visible enthusiasm among players and coaches. (I never quite got used to Texas manager Ron Washington’s constant yeahs! during the 2011 playoffs. They seemed to belong to a different sport, for a reason ultimately the same as why Angel Pagan’s 2012 salutes were dissonant.)
That’s why “there’s no crying in baseball” has legs: the axiom, though prosaic, captures the game’s resistance to emotional display. So when feeling breaks out—builds up, really, from an unbearable kind of pressure—it fully breaks out and has the capacity to nearly overheat the capacity of the game. Sheer management of tremendous energy in the high end. Listen to how high the tension is in a song like Big Star’s “Back of A Car,” or in “Alcoholiday” by Teenage Fanclub. In the latter song, something about the octave-jump in the line “If they will be with you” is a stab to the heart every time Norman Blake makes it, a stab for which the song prepares you via otherwise grinding repetition.
It’s worth noting that you can’t even understand most of the words in “Alcoholiday,” which is true of many power pop songs. (R.E.M. owned this tradition early in the band’s career.) And even when you can understand them, they frequently make little or no sense. (Alex Chilton: “I’m a music person and the words I often don’t notice at all.”) The sound is what’s important, and the way allusive or suggestive qualities of words and vocal shapes and sounds help the music mean. As one writer put it, Big Star’s “She’s A Mover” sounds like a song that should be called “She’s A Mover.”
Which is to say that the meaning of baseball is contained within the game itself. It does not “fabricate meaning… deeper extrinsic interest,” because it doesn’t need “meaning” or deeper extrinsic interest. Baseball is the only sport heavily burdened with “purism”—there’s hardly any such thing as a “football purist” or “basketball purist.”
Be careful here, because “purism” is a dicey notion that gets exploited by both sides. The old guard still wants to purge not only the between-innings base race sideshow but also the designated hitter. The power pop baseball fan agrees, probably, with the former but has an entirely different take on the latter, most likely: rather than make rash, emotional decisions about the rules, let’s scrutinize the rules and how they affect the game. Let’s use Oblique Strategies, thought experiments. Let’s fool ourselves in theory and see what that might reveal about the practice. As Miller has it all the way at the top of the article: “Every regular is sneering like we don’t belong / No it’s not true I played a lot of baseball in my younger days.”
You see where this is headed: it’s another way of looking at the traditionalists—the “regulars”—versus the sabermetricians. You will have noted that the power pop guys at the top of this article are sabermetrically-inclined journalists and commentators. That can probably speak for itself, except it’s worth stopping to note that the intransigent “regulars” (heavy quotation marks, as sabermetricians hold the sport to far more regularizing standards) tend to be the ones ranting about the(im)morality of steroids while the vanguard simply puts the phenomenon to work. It wants to know why and how: what happens to the game (and can what happens really be understood?) if you apply the (strained?) oblique strategy of PEDs to it?
I’ll conclude, on this red-letter Hall of Fame day, by noting that, further, power pop is by one boilerplate description just pop music on steroids. It’s perhaps for that reason that this year’s PED-associated clutch of Hall of Fame candidates have faced so much opprobrium from the regulars, just as power pop has never really found its way into the music pantheon (unless you count the Big Star/Cheap Trick medley theme song from That 70’s Show). The best power-pop is so hooky yet so unsentimental, so hard to pin down yet so potent, that perhaps people tend to assume the results must have been achieved by cheating. That oblique strategies might be credited instead may be too much to risk.
As for Cotton Mather, Goldman might like to know that Robert Harrison now masterminds a wonderful, if only sporadically productive band with the unfortunate name of Future Clouds and Radar. Their debut album was released in 2007 and is, naturally, a 27-track double CD that you can get yourself delightfully lost in, like Dorothy on the Yellow Brick road, for weeks. Harrison also recently reunited with his old Cotton Mather bandmates and re-released a collector’s edition of Kontiki. I’ll leave you with this baseball verse from Future Clouds and Radar’s second (and, nearly five years later, most recent) album, Peoria. These lines from “The Mortal”—a song which contains a wonderfully jarring (oblique-strategic) song splice partway through—not only make another power pop-baseball connection but also make it clear that the formalists, too, are not without their traditionalism and even nostalgia:
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