Monday, November 24, 2014

The First Of A Few Game Theory Reissues This Week Drops Today: My Take on Dead Center

Forget the big sales in the shops this Thanksgiving week. What you really need to be buying are a slew of Game Theory reissues due from Omnivore Recordings, the first of which drops today. The compilation Dead Center from 1984 has been "reimagined" and expanded and reissued in spectacular fashion. Grab it now and then on Black Friday grab another 2 Game Theory reissues from the label.

But for now, here's my look at Dead Center.

What's important to note is that this comp doesn't completely overlap with Pointed Accounts of People You Know (1983) and Distortion (1984) so you need to buy those 2 when they're re-issued on Friday. There are 4 songs each from those 2 releases here plus loads more. It's the "loads more" that should interest any fan of Game Theory.

Michael Quercio of The Three O'Clock provides some insights via the masterful liner notes and it's worth remembering how he was nearly in the band at this point. And Dead Center captures a band in a period of transition. This collection of EP tracks and live cuts is not so much a mixed bag as a smorgasbord of diverse riches. That it holds together so well speaks to the strengths of the band, the personnel involved, and Scott Miller's skill as a songwriter.

Michael Quercio's own contributions are best highlighted by the inclusion of "Too Late for Tears (Michael Q's 'George Martin' Rough Mix)", a highlight of this release. This version of the cut from Distortion (1984) is sleek despite the "rough" production. It's a tune that places Game Theory closer to their LA power pop peers like The Plimsouls. Spin this next to "Zero Hour" and you'll see what I mean.

But ultimately Game Theory were a far more complicated band. Scott Miller's brainy lyrics and sense of song-craft guaranteed that the band were never going to be easy to categorize.

And to further that point there's a cover of R.E.M.'s "Radio Free Europe" here which takes what was a fairly odd sounding single at the time and turns it into something direct like a Marshall Crenshaw tune. The guitar licks on this rendition are less Peter Buck and more Keith Richards. Miller seems at once to be "taking the piss" out of his then-rock rivals and also distilling what R.E.M. were doing then into its most basic parts. It's worth remembering that back in '83 - '84 R.E.M. were a bit mysterious compared to how they'd sound on "The One I Love" a few years later. And Miller seems to be picking apart that mystery, never mind that Game Theory were due to tour with R.E.M. producer Mitch Easter's Let's Active around the time period that Dead Center chronicles.

A similar result is found in the included cover of one of my favorite Roxy Music songs. "Mother of Pearl" doesn't seem to be the kind of song that power-poppers would gravitate to but Miller and his crew find the hook and turn it into something fresh.

What's revealed here in these and other covers is how adept Scott Miller was at this sort of thing. He was Robert Pollard before Robert Pollard was Robert Pollard. There's a feeling that he was cranking this sort of thing out effortlessly and at a fast clip. And for that reason he was a genius.

Or as The Three O'Clock's Michael Quercio says so eloquently about Scott Miller in the liner notes: "To me, he was an incredibly melodic rocket scientist."

Play "Shark Pretty" here with its near-rockabilly rhythms and Big Beat Era guitar lines. It's far better than most of the stuff that we hold in such high esteem from this era. How many times have you played a Culture Club record recently? Your nostalgia for that Valley Girl era would be far better served by smart pop like this.

Quite simply: Scott Miller was too good for his time. He joins his beloved Alex Chilton of Big Star in the list of those who were more appreciated by fans a generation later, fans who "got it" on first listen.

Maybe because Game Theory were not strictly a skinny tie act made it so hard to characterize them in 1983 or 1984? More Beatles-influenced than the Byrds-ian R.E.M., Scott Miller and his crew were like the sober Replacements, capable of both rockin' covers ("The Letter") and plaintive bits of genuine emotion ("The Red Baron"). And that breadth of skill in multiple styles made the band seem unique then. One listen to this reissue of Dead Center, out today on Omnivore Recordings, ought to remind you of just how great this band was.

I came of age when Paul Westerberg was constantly name-dropping Big Star in interviews -- or at least critics of the band were -- and even naming one of his best singles after "Alex Chilton". It's seems as if the time is ripe for someone to do the same for the late great Scott Miller.

The contemporaries of The Replacements, Game Theory were every bit as good. Hear that depth and variety here. After all, it's only a short hop to Rigel Five folks!

Dead Center by Game Theory is out today on Omnivore Recordings.