I never set out to be a sportswriter. Oh, as a kid I was a baseball fanatic, and absolutely wanted a career in sports, notwithstanding that I didn’t play any competitively — in my neck of 1970s Manhattan, competitive sports leagues were nearly unheard of. At around age 11, I got a book written by the Mets’ team statistician, and for a while was dead certain I wanted to be the Mets’ team statistician, notwithstanding that I knew the job was taken because I’d just read a book by the guy who’d taken it.
Still, it was almost entirely by accident that when I finally got what in retrospect turned out to be my big writing break — a small-press publisher who spotted an article I’d co-written on stadium subsidies and offered me and my co-author Joanna a book deal — it was sports-related. (Okay, actually it wasn’t at first: He wanted us to write about corporate subsidies broadly, and we had to convince him that a sports stadium book would be easier to tackle and would sell better. But that’s mostly because his knowledge of sports, as he explained it, was that “I went to a hockey game once.”)
Where was I before getting lost in that parenthetical? Right, the book deal. That led to a book, and eventually a semi-regular writing gig for the Village Voice’s sports section. That worked out great for about five years, at which point my Voice editor called me to say, “The good news is your latest article is running this week. The bad news is it’s the last piece that will ever run in the Voice sports section, because they just eliminated it.”
If I was going to continue to capitalize on my newfound expertise in sports-stuff-having-nothing-to-do-with-the-games-themselves, I was clearly going to have to find another outlet. In the course of writing a Voice article about this strange new breed of sports analysts calling themselves “sabermetricians,” I’d gotten to know Joe Sheehan of Baseball Prospectus, so I shot him an email: Did BP need freelancers? His answer: Sure! Having money to pay them, now that was another matter…
Fast-forward seven years and change, and I’d graduated from writing for BP’s website and books to editing articles, as part of a four-headed team that churned through the site’s daily content. Which is how I got to know Ben Lindbergh.
I could dedicate an entire entry to Ben Lindbergh’s writing — his book with Sam Miller on getting to run a minor-league baseball team on sabermetric principles is a masterpiece — but right now all we need to concern ourselves with is that he loves music almost as much as he does baseball. And not just music, but especially a particular strain of smart power pop that doesn’t always get its due: This is a guy who once wrote an article ranking the best Paul McCartney non-Beatles songs that weren’t on any of his solo greatest-hits compilations, which requires a special commitment to the task at hand.
If Ben has a single musical passion, though, it is Sloan, the Canadian rock band who, Ben would tell me on a regular basis, were Beatles-esque pop songwriting geniuses if you just listened to them long and hard enough. Ben may love Paul McCartney enough to have listened to the deep cuts on “Red Rose Speedway” enough to rank them, but I doubt he would have chosen to get engaged onstage at a McCartney concert, even if Sir Paul had been willing.
Anyway, it was during one long instant-message conversation with Ben about Sloan that I figured I needed to give them a shot. To start with, I chose their 2006 album “Never Hear the End of It,” which was described by Ben as “very Abbey Roady”; it also features 30 songs in 76 minutes, so I also probably figured if I didn’t like any particular song at least there’d be another one right around the corner.
Two songs in, I realized I did already know one Sloan song: “Who Taught You To Live Like That?” which I’d heard on a WFMU live compilation. It’s a joyously snarky (or snarkily joyous?) pop confection of willfully obscure verses (“The piano was upright/Attendance was uptight”) bound together by the group-sung chorus, and even more so by the propulsive piano riff and hand claps that would make this an earworm even if the words were nonsensical. (Which in places they are: See above re: piano.)
It was an impression that stayed with me until I got to the end of “Never Hear The End Of It”: These guys were clearly master songsmiths. But then, you know, so are, I dunno, Squeeze. Or Fountains of Wayne, as Robbie Fulks famously (and, he always insisted, well-meaningly) lampooned them. ELO, as I never fully realized until I saw that Doctor Who episode. These are all bands that I can respect, but I don’t generally find I want to listen to them all that much — I tend to demand more sand in the gears of my music, a topic that requires a deeper discussion of the varied functions music serves in different people’s lives than I have time to get into here, now that I wasted so much space talking about baseball.
Anyway, if you want perfectly crafted clever pop gems, you could do worse than listen to Sloan. For me, I keep them around on iTunes partly because I respect Ben, and partly because in small doses Sloan songs can be a welcome palate-cleanser, music simply for the joy of music. Which reminds me, it’s been a long while since I’ve listened to “Red Rose Speedway”…