Friday, February 09, 2007

New Order

Six days to pitchers and catchers, as my little buddy reports. Almost time to start stretching out here at Misery Loves Company. Almost.

I’m not there yet. Soon enough it will be time to begin thinking about the New York Mets and Boston Red Sox; for now, though, we can focus on our other passions at MLC. Until I can find the inspiration to ponder how ol’ Willie Larry will fill out the Opening Day lineup card, I have a semi-related tangent.

The thought that goes into the assembling of a baseball lineup is not unlike the compilation of music tracks into an album, and I refer to the entire gamut of “albums” – from calculated, professional releases on major labels to the personal touches of a mixed CD for a fellow music appreciator. If you subscribe to a few time-worn tenets, you’ll be constructing playoff-contending recordings every time.

1. Lead-Off: In baseball, getting the lead-off man on base is an obviously enormous factor in offensive success. It’s no less a given that any LP, 8-track, cassette, CD, or playlist absolutely needs some fire from Track 1. The tone-setters, the top spot holders may not be the very best in the lineup, but they must present a positive portent of things to come. “Runnin’ with the Devil” comes to mind right off the bat. Speed and power? Even better. Think “Safe European Home” off The Clash’s second album or Pearl Jam’s “Go.” “Thunder Road,” “Begin the Begin,” “Peter Piper,” “Gimme Shelter,” “Lust for Life,” “Rain on the Scarecrow,” and especially “Blitzkrieg Bop” are vintage intros. Less mainstream first hitters include Spoon’s “Everything Hits at Once,” the DBT’s “Where the Devil Don’t Stay,” and my all-time fave: “Jagged,” by the Old 97’s.

The lead-off spot should certainly make something of a statement. Just ask Lenny Dykstra about leading off Game 3 of the Series. “Wild Flower” was stronger noise about The Cult’s new sound than calling the album Electric even was, and “Hells Bells” was a brilliant, eye-opening salve to fans lamenting Bon Scott’s loss. “Smells Like Teen Spirit”? The Rickey Henderson of album openers. If you’re constructing your own record, you know what to do here.

2. The Two-Spot: Not quite the pressure-packed position that lead-off is, it’s nearly as integral a slot, one that can quickly undo a bit of good after a decent start if you’re not careful. (See GIDP-worthy tunes like the Chilis’ “Aeroplane,” Bruce’s “Soul Driver,” the Stones’ “Fight,” or Jimmy’s “Baby’s Gone Shoppin’” for Robby Alomar-ish examples of highly disappointed epiphanies that occur moments into Track 2, marking a decidedly downward turn for the whole lineup.) Conversely, a strong second hitter can duplicate or even outdo the spark of its predecessor. It can segue between the initial hit and the real meat of the order like a Mark Bellhorn or Peter Gabriel’s “No Self Control,” or it can be a focal point like Derek Jeter, “Paranoid Android,” “Ma & Pa,” “Alex Chilton,” or “Remedy.” The sublime “Shake Your Rump” is a de facto lead-off, kicking off Paul’s Boutique after the messin’-about opener; one of the great second tracks of all time. Whether you’re scripting a starting nine or a songlist, remember: this spot can be the calm before the storm, but you can’t hide a sub-par entity here. Continuity is the key. No letdowns.

And for some bizarre reason, Ween’s second song from their masterpiece Chocolate & Cheese, “Spinal Meningitis (Got Me Down)” – a creepy, disturbingly mesmerizing tune from an otherwise enjoyable collection – reminds me a whole lot of Mickey Morandini.

3. The Third Hitter: In baseball and especially men’s league softball, the 3-spot in the lineup is considered the place for the best hitter on the team. From Ruth to Musial to Mays to Clemente to Yaz to Papi to Beltr — uh, Pujols. (See, Carlos, this is why you should want to bat third.) A combination of pure skill and big-time pop, it’s a great place to look to get a bead on how the whole collection performs. The 2003 Mets’ third hitters posted a combined OPS of .733, while the same year’s Braves’ 3-men put up a 1.010 mark. There you go.

When Edgardo Alfonzo was thrown into the third spot in 2000, the formerly prototypical 2-hitter put up serious 3-spot numbers (.324/.425/.542) and was no small factor in helping propel the Mets to the World Series. When injuries and slumps plagued him the following season (.243/.322/.403), he slid back to the second spot – leaving this critical space to be occupied by an assortment of otherwise suited hitters (Piazza, Ventura, even a Shinjo or Agbayani). The dynamic was lost, and the team lost a dozen more games in ’01.

Track 3 stand-outs represent some of the best songs on some of the best releases in rock & roll history: “So. Cent. Rain,” “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” “With or Without You,” “Hey Joe,” “Breaking the Girl,” “Roxanne,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “Another One Bites the Dust,” “Alive,” “I Shot the Sheriff,” “Wave of Mutilation,” “Love Me Two Times,” “Sugar Magnolia” . . . and it goes on seemingly indefinitely. Records from the past decade or two don’t disappoint in their 3-slot either, with “A Shot in the Arm,” “Brick,” “Crash into Me,” “Fell On Black Days,” “Float On,” “Take Me Out,” “Wonderwall,” and “Last Goodbye” among the many examples. If you’re compiling your own music for a release, put the tune you’re most proud of in the 3-hole. If you’re making a mix, find the super-solid single that defines the collection best, your .300/30/120 guy, and chuck it in this spot.

4. Clean-Up: Cue the Wood-a-been: “Let me tell you what Melba Toast is packing right here.” Anybody who knows anything about baseball knows all about the clean-up hitter and what his job is. Pummel the horsehide, drive in runs. Dial 9. And so the fourth spots of box scores throughout baseball history are rife with big, burly beasts with names like Greenberg, Killebrew, Robinson, McCovey, Jackson, Murray, and, say, Carlos Delgado and Manny Ramirez. You may not know too much about Home Run Baker, but you don’t have to ask where his manager put him in the lineup.

It may not be as obvious that rock & roll records do much the same thing with their own clean-up spots. The 4-hole is very frequently the post for the big punch; if your album intends to kick any sort of ass, you’ll want a three-song build-up and a knockout punch on Track 4. It doesn’t always have to be a thunderous musical blitz of a song (though it often is), but it definitely needs an eyebrow-raising, palpable wallop of lyrical, musical or any kind of force. Observe: “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love,” “Walk This Way,” “Iron Man,” “Stairway to Heaven,” “Simple Man,” “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” “Southern Man,” “Pump It Up,” “Jump in the Fire,” “Peace Frog,” “Once in a Lifetime,” “Bullet the Blue Sky,” “Zero,” “Little T&A,” “You Can’t Put Your Finger On It,” “Rock the Casbah.” We’re talkin’ some fuckin’ muscle.

Clean-up isn’t always going to compete with the 3-hole for absolute best, but it should deliver the goods. Louder, stronger, and bigger are recurrent descriptors. “Breed” isn’t the best song on Nevermind, quite obviously, but it may rock the hardest. “You Got Lucky” is a cooler tune, but Petty cranks up his gee-tar on “Change of Heart” in perfect Song 4 style. “Blister In the Sun” has more angst, but “Add It Up” is the frenzied, f-word rocker that will knock you for a loop more readily. Even albums featuring less of a hard edge kick it up for the clean-up track; “Don’t Let’s Start” and “Buddy Holly” are about as rowdy as geek rock gets, and Dave Matthews’ “Rhyme & Reason” is significantly tougher than much of his other work (part of which makes it one of my DMB favorites). The Pogues have done harder and louder songs than “Fairytale of New York,” but few anthems have as much grit and venom. If you have a rocker, and not everyone does (James Taylor has historically had no hits with the fourth track, and that’s no slag, but no coincidence), this is clearly where it goes.

5. The 5-Hole: After turning the corner at #4, there’s less structure from here on out, but there are still more guidelines to the five-hole than there are later in the order. A big RBI guy, some pop, the player you can’t quite justify putting at 3 or 4. That’s not to say the talent wanes considerably: Darryl Strawberry and Don Baylor both excelled in this spot in 1986; Carlton Fisk batted fifth more than any other place in the lineup; the Township’s greatest American hero manned the 5-post throughout this past season. Similarly, don’t let your recording suffer after knocking their socks off with 1-4. “Been Caught Stealing,” “The Weight,” “Higher Ground,” “Welcome to Paradise,” “Mr. Brownstone,” “Tumbling Dice,” “Clocks,” and “Born to Run” are greatest-hits quality tunes that someone decided to hold off on until the fifth place in the order.

6. Sixth and Beyond: Here’s where it starts to become far more of a grey area for baseball managers and record producers. Spots six through nine in the batting order are places for the less prolific batsmen, and there’s less strategy to go along with less skill. On the musical side of things, it gets even fuzzier; over the course of the last few decades, the evolution of musical media (LP’s to tapes to CD’s to mp3’s) meant a lifting of the size restrictions that have shaped album structures, so what was important in 1978 (putting “Can’t Stand Losing You” as the #6 track so it’d be the first song on Side B) is lost in the modern configuration. Now, in fact, you can have a 25-song CD that could mirror an entire roster (a rainy day post of the future?) and an even longer mp3 playlist. If you’re creating something on your own, this is where it starts to be less formulaic and more personal; it’s not to say that your own touches shouldn’t grace the early portion of the collection, but sticking to the general rules of thumb above may well take your creation it to another level of enjoyment. There’s one last rule, though . . .

7. Last in the Order: Every batting order could use a steady sort in the last spot (the last spot before the pitcher in the National League) to keep things rolling along: a Butch Hobson, a Scott Brosius, a Mark Lemke, and other people who’ve been cursed in this space. While it can be a place to hide defensive whizzes with weak bats (God knows guys like Pokey Reese and Rafael Santana weren’t in there for their plate work), a little something down there can mean a lot. The ’05 White Sox got significantly more production out of their #9 spot than they did out of their 7 and 8 hitters – you say bad managing, I say World Series title.

In music, however, it’s a little different – it’s more like a closer role. The last track on a record should be memorable, even if it’s in a weird way. Sgt. Pepper’s is considered by many a classic among classics, but if it ended with “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” instead of “A Day in the Life,” it wouldn’t do itself much justice, now would it? It can be a gentle fade-out after a riveting set (“Good Feeling” or “Here Comes a Regular”); a seven-minute intrigue (“Biko” or “Riders on the Storm”); a scratchy feast of guitar-driven psychedilia (“Are You Experienced?”); a rare cover (“Superman”); a hidden pop single after an hour of punk genius (“Train in Vain”); it an even be a ridiculously lyricked, volume-tinkered end to it all (“Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others”). As long as there’s some kind of hook, something to stand out as a final stamp on the album, you’re good to go.

Make it count, as folks did with cuts like “Purple Rain,” “The Ocean,” “American Girl,” “Who Are You,” “Fools Gold,” “Four Leaf Clover,” “40,” “Rock and Roll All Nite,” “Jungleland,” “Wendell Gee,” “Rockin’ in the Free World,” “Road to Nowhere,” “Tin Cup Chalice,” and plenty more. Elvis Costello used to really know how to end an album – consider that “Watching the Detectives,” “Radio, Radio,” and “Peace, Love & Understanding” closed his first three records. It’s just a little bit of marketing to let the last notes lingering in the listener’s head be among the most lasting.

So there you go. The last thing I’ll add is an example of what I feel is a perfectly cast album of the quasi-modern era in this vein. In my mind, Social Distortion’s self-titled major label debut incorporates all of the elements that I mentioned. Let’s take a gander.

Social Distortion: Social Distortion
1. So Far Away
2. Let It Be Me
3. Story of My Life
4. Sick Boys
5. Ring Of Fire
6. Ball and Chain
7. It Coulda Been Me
8. She's a Knockout
9. Place in My Heart
10. Drug Train

A killer opener – one of the sharpest in all of punk rock. Not a bit of letdown with Track 2. #3 brilliance; I think Rolling Stone called it the anti-“My Way” song. Something powerful in the clean-up hole – not quite the most furious of their tunes, but one of their all-timers . . . followed up by one of the hardest and greatest Johnny Cash covers ever done.

“Ball & Chain” at the six-spot might seem out of place, considering that it was the single/video, but I think it’s about right. It’s always solid, but maybe it’s lost some pop over the years for me (especially because I think it’s a slight re-working of their earlier tune “Prison Bound”). It’s certainly closer to Cliff Floyd than Ray Knight, to be sure. 7-9 aren’t filler, not at all, but they’re well-placed. The closer, “Drug Train,” is a driving, bluesy number with a different feel than the rest of the album, and a fine send-off after one of the most spectacular albums of . . . Rob’s and my Strat-o-matic, 40-ouncers, and rock & roll filled summer in Williamsburg, Virginia – if not all time.


rob said...

sweet - now i've got something to do this afternoon.

GTB said...

The time is now boys...the first set of pitchers and catchers just reported.

rob said...

the dreaded combination of work travel and inclement weather has me well behind in my blogging efforts. things don't look good for me to get anything done today.