Fran Kowalski, the man behind The Thrill Building, is big into baseball. Before even a word was uttered about his band’s new CD, he talked on and on about different ballparks, how pitchers could build arm strength playing long toss, how his nephews are developing in baseball and the various parks he has been to and the players he’s met.
He also says he gets a thrill watching baseball, whether it’s little leaguers or major leaguers. While we did eventually get around to talking about the music, he seemed at least as interested talking about baseball and sharing his own experiences and anecdotes as he did about his new record.
The Greatest Game in the World is an unabashed love letter to baseball. All of its 22 songs are about baseball. While The Baseball Project dug deep into the varied cast of characters that populate (or have populated) the game, Kowalski instead examines the game itself and the culture surrounding it.
Leadoff song “The Greatest Game in the World” makes no bones about what the song is about, while “Baseball’s Coming Back” is a tune that combines the sound textures of the Beach Boys with the anthem-like qualities of U2, a paean to Opening Day even the hardest baseball cynic can warm up to.
It all came about when Kowalski wrote the title track a couple of years back, leading to writing a few more baseball-related songs. A downpour of material soon came out, aided by lyricist Ryan Rose, leading up to the finished product. The band’s name was meant as a take on the Brill Building, a New York locale where legendary songwriters like Neil Diamond, Burt Bacharach, Hal David, Mike Leiber and Jerry Stoller hammered out some of their best songs in the 1950s and 1960s.
“I was going to do a collection of songs,” Kowalski said over the phone recently. “I wrote ‘Greatest Game,’ and on the heels of that came other songs, and they all just came pouring out. After a while I said, ‘This is it. It’s going to be a baseball CD.’ After that, it just became a matter of stopping.”
After some editing, it came to life, a 22-song CD focused purely on baseball.
“The trick was diving into it headfirst,” he said about the creative process. “You totally immerse yourself in it, and it became a spiritual and emotional experience.”
Kowalski is the only member of the band to appear on all songs. Rose co-wrote the lyrics on some, and otherwise there are a variety of musicians who play on the record. Most notable is guitarist Pat Buchanan, who gives some lead guitar muscle to many of the songs.
The influences range from the idealism of “Smile”-era Beach Boys or “Centerfield”-era John Fogerty, to classic 1960s-70s power pop, the last of which Kowalski is certainly no stranger to. He spent many years backing up the legendary Alex Chilton and also played with P.F. Sloan and ex-dB Chris Stamey, among others. Songs like “Play Ball” and “I’m Gonna Hit It” reflect this with their quick tempos, simple guitar and keyboard backing, catchy melodies and layered vocal harmonies.
He also takes the themes in a few interesting directions. “Signs” is about one of the games within the game, with players and coaches exchanging and stealing signs, hoping to get the strategic upper-hand; while “Infinity Road” depicts a player traveling form team to team and city to city, doing what he loves. “The Perfect Player” is about a scout looking for the ultimate player, inspired by Moneyball.
They don’t forget their sense of humor either. “Hot Dog Man” is a straightforward cheer song in the Toni Basil vein about the guy who serves the ballpark’s favorite food, while “I Missed My Wedding Day” is a ska tune about a guy who blows off his wedding day when his team unexpectedly makes the World Series. There is also “The Forum,” about all the crazed would-be general managers on the message boards.
Kowalski not only depicts the game itself, but seems almost as interested as celebrating the culture surrounding it.
While two of the better songs, “Roland Hemond” and “Bob Sheppard,” are character sketches, Kowalski deliberately stayed away from the largely character-driven songs of The Baseball Project.
“I wanted to focus on the game itself,” he said. “I think the game transcends the players.”
Nevertheless, “Roland Hemond” focuses on one of the game’s great executives.
“He was a great GM and a great scout,” Kowalski said. “He has nurtured enough people in this game to fill a mid-size city.”
He has similar feelings about Bob Sheppard, the famous Yankee announcer. “How cool would it be to have Bob Sheppard announce all the key moments in your life?”
This CD is ultimately for those who liked movies like “The Natural” and “Field of Dreams.” There are no testimonials of players who are bitter because they just missed free agency or the slightly twisted gunslinger mentality of closers. Kowalski and his cohorts are out to celebrate the joy of the game like the Beach Boys wanted to celebrate summer. You can almost smell the freshly-mowed grass on “Baseball’s Coming Back” and want to get out of your seat on “Rally Time.”
What may make it appealing to the non-“Natural” crowd is Kowalski’s impeccable songcrafting and production. All those years playing with guys like Chilton and working as a sought-after producer and arranger have taught him to write amazing pop songs full of melodies and fine vocal harmonies. To top it off, he throws in a dash of Midwestern guitar rock to give it a little edge.
As for future plans, he may tour if the demand is there, and he said he was approached by The Baseball Project about playing some dates together. While Kowalski said in the press kit that he has other musical projects in the pipeline, for now he says, “You can think of us as the ultimate garage band for baseball. We’re totally immersed in it and wouldn’t have it any other way.”
The Thrill Building’s Greatest Game in the World is available on iTunes, Band Camp and Amazon.com. To hear it streamed, please click the link below.