More than any other album perhaps, Game Theory's 1985 Real Nighttime highlights a brief moment in American pop when acts on these shores, maybe taking inspiration from earlier generations of British bands, managed to create some fantastic music. Brainy, lyrical, and full of big hooks, the tunes on this Game Theory release are perfect examples of exactly how to make pop music in the very best meaning of that term. Continuing in their series of Game Theory reissues, covered by me here and here, Omnivore Recordings have really done a spectacular job with this release of Game Theory's Real Nighttime, out in about a week or so. With a whopping 10 previously unreleased bonus cuts, plus a few other goodies, this is already poised to be one of the significant reissues of 2015.
Here's my take.
Real Nighttime (still) sounds fresh and immediate and simultaneously carefully planned. The only comparison I can offer now -- and it's not a perfect comparison -- is how Guided By Voices cranks out power pop without sometimes fussing over the production. Clearly something about what Pollard and his crew would do later was inspired by stuff Game Theory did earlier. In terms of production, and how this record sounds, that comparison is not meant to slight producer Mitch Easter in any way but, rather, to draw attention to what he captured so well here.
The liner notes to this release of Real Nighttime are very informative and especially so thanks to the interview with producer Mitch Easter.
(By the way, he's producing the new album from D.C.'s own Dot Dash, in case you didn't know that from my many posts here on that band!)
Mitch Easter manages to sum up why this record sounds so great by looking at how the Beatles went from being a raw band to being studio wizards. As he explains the pleasures of those sort of rough takes from a band, he hits the nail on the head in explaining why Real Nighttime still has such a unique appeal to listeners some 30 years later:
"There's something about those kinds of [early] takes that are my favorites, so I was never going to talk about preproduction anyway. But, beyond that, I don't think anybody had the way to do that because I think . . . you know, they lived on the West Coast and I lived on the East Coast, I was playing in my own band Let's Active, and I don't think that we had the time or the resources or whatever to allocate two weeks to just rehearse all the time. I don't remember rehearsing that stuff with them. I mean, I know we did, but I don't remember it. I just don't remember it, and I didn't care. I mean, most of the sessions I did back then were really quick, and I wasn't planning on going too quick, but I didn't like to belabor it, you know? Anyway, they were very together. I don't recall that we had to get in there to fix or correct stuff that was just not happening.
In an era when synth bands like Duran Duran were ruling the airwaves, and "alternative" or "indie rock" were non-existent terms as "college rock" was how you'd describe guitar-based stuff like R.E.M., Game Theory stood out a bit. But they stood out in a good way as they managed to craft quirky -- in the best sense of the word -- pop at odds with a lot of the mainstream at the time.
And what about the tunes? "Waltz The Halls Always" cranks by on the sort of hooks that The Replacements would soon call their own, while "I Mean It This Time" chimes in the style of the best, early Big Star songs mixed with a hint of The Byrds. "Curse of the Frontier Land" echoes both R.E.M. (as the liner notes mention) and producer Mitch Easter's subsequent work with Let's Active, while "Rayon Drive" has a near-punk sort of riff underpinning a cut that's buoyed by the keyboard flourishes. As others have probably mentioned, it's got a bit of a Lou Reed snarl to it even as the electronic bits carry the melody in some wilder directions.
"Real Nighttime" is a delight -- the sort of stuff that The Posies would end up doing so well much later (and for reference, check out the recent reissue of The Posies' Failure, also on Omnivore Recordings). "You Can't Have Me", a Big Star cover, acknowledges the debt that Scott Miller's brand of brainiac pop owes to the earlier Chilton stuff, while album closer "I Turned Her Away" now, with a bit of hindsight, sounds like the kind of music The Three O'Clock would perfect a few years later. As Game Theory were on the edges of the budding Paisley Underground scene at the time that Real Nighttime was recorded, it sort of makes sense that there would be some discernible similarities. And especially so since The Three O'Clock's Michael Quercio provides back-up vocals on a bunch of the album cuts here on this one.
And now, what of the bonus cuts on this reissue of Real Nighttime?
Well, we've got "Girl with a Guitar" and "Faithless" from The Big Shot Chronicles (1986). Then we've got "Any Other Hand" which was a bonus cut on the previous version of Real Nighttime (1985). And after that, what have we got? Well, we've then got another 10 previously unreleased tracks!
Of that album's-worth of previously unheard tunes, the highlights remain live covers of Gerry Rafferty's "Baker Street" and Queen's "Lily of the Valley", both played relatively straight. Now while a certain Beatles cover is missing from this reissue of Real Nighttime (1985) -- the subject of a big brouhaha on Facebook in various Game Theory/Scott Miller groups -- there are enough treasures here to please even the most jaded of fans. By supplying so many live cuts to this release, Omnivore Recordings have made a listener focus on the duality of the band: the studio Game Theory and the live, touring Game Theory.
Using a shifting set of players on these 10 live cuts, Scott Miller's Game Theory shows itself a robust act, capable of both Chilton-style introspection ("The Red Baron" [live]) and the somewhat ornate, near-chamber rock of earlier acts like The Left Banke ("Curse of the Frontier Land" [live]).
Scott Miller and Fred Juhos of Game Theory in 1985 or so...
And it's on the lovely Juhos-penned "Faithless" (live) that, for a minute, Game Theory doesn't appear to be just The Scott Miller Show. The cut seems like the cousin to what D.C. legend Tommy Keene was putting out on Geffen back in the same era. Sprightly and concise, this bit of power pop is one of the highlights of the non-album cuts section on this edition of Real Nighttime (1985).
Well, Pat Thomas, Dan Vallor and Cheryl Pawelski at Omnivore Recordings have done another magnificent job with this release. Real Nighttime (1985), more than ever, remains a power-pop masterpiece but I hesitate to even pigeonhole the band by using that term. What Miller and his band have done here is produce something that, when viewed now, seems to be straddling multiple genres with expert grace. Punchy in spots, introspective in others, Real Nighttime (1985) is a collection of 12 cuts that make up a textbook of how smart music was done at one time in this country. For a spell it seemed as if a guy like Scott Miller could join Costello and his peers in elevating what was derisively termed college rock into something much more. And, on another level, it serves as a perfect example of what producer Mitch Easter can do so well.
And, most significantly, if you listen to this version of Real Nighttime (1985) in the context of the other reissues from Omnivore Recordings, you'll hear the growth of this act in subtle and revealing ways. What makes this version of Real Nighttime (1985) so thrilling -- beyond Scott Miller's skill as a songwriter -- is the way these reissues present his approach to songcraft. Released with loving care and scrupulous attention to detail, this edition of Real Nighttime (1985) by Game Theory is, like the other reissues already let loose by Omnivore Recordings, the perfect point-in-time representation of the genius of Scott Miller and his various band-mates.