So where do middle-aged professional baseball players go when they retire? If they're former major league pitcher "Black" Jack McDowell, of last decade's Cleveland Indians, Chicago White Sox and New York Yankees, then they pick up a guitar, write a few songs, and live out a rock and roll dream. What makes McDowell's band Stickfigure and new album Ape of the Kings interesting is that he successfully pulls from generational experience to blow the dust off the 1980s modern rock movement. No, I'm not talking about Loverboy or Huey Lewis & The News. Instead, Stickfigure works off a page of notable throwbacks like The Smithereens and XTC to create a collection of simple, riff-happy staples that never drift too far from one another.
Close your eyes and spin the opener, "The Grave," and you might well believe Marshall Crenshaw has gotten the old band back together. It doesn't get much easier than following along with "Let me be what I wanna be, feel what I wanna feel." But then, nobody ever said a songwriter or his band had to blow you away with complexity in order to hold an ear. Make no mistake, it's the harmless simplicity of this record that makes it so pleasing. "Hey Man" could have fallen off most any Connells record, with its jangly guitars and shuffling mandolin. But if you're looking for the "crank it up" arena rock track, then it's "Just Like Them," probably the best bid for a breakout radio song.
As for the supporting cast, Stickfigure is no thrown-together, minimum wage staff of session musicians. The Vandals' drummer Josh Freese (who has Paul Westerberg and Axl Rose on his current resume) straps in to provide most of the beats, while former Smithereen Mike Mesaros rounds out the rhythm section on bass. McDowell lays down most of the guitar work himself, nearly as effortlessly as he once hung curve balls in front of 40,000 people at Comiskey Park. Finally, Tom Weir climbs behind the mixing board to assist in giving Ape of the Kings its polished, clean sound.
While the second half of the record begins to fade into forgettable oblivion, there is more than enough sing-along, 1980s-style guitar rock woven within this recent Stickfigure project to keep most listeners happy! And in the end, I have to believe this is a far more admirable venture than Shaquille O'Neal's attempt at a rap career.
other Stickfigure reviews:
Memento Mori (2003)