This was the one that broke them big...at least as big as they'd ever make it. This was the album that reached a certain critical mass among the college rock masses. In an era of great double albums (Warehouse: Songs and Stories, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, and the next year's Daydream Nation), 1987's Lolita Nation was Game Theory's stab at making a great double album. It was, in many ways, the perfect representation of the band's sound and POV and a wholly perfect crash-course into the genius of Scott Miller as a songwriter and performer.
Lolita Nation, out Friday in a fabulous deluxe expanded edition from Omnivore Recordings, is a power-pop classic even as Miller pushes the boundaries of the form in weird ways all over this release. If some cuts like "Little Ivory" sound a trifle like other Mitch Easter-produced bands (R.E.M., for one), stuff like "We Love You Carol and Alison" chimes much like tunes from Easter's own Let's Active. Lolita Nation remains not only a showcase for Scott Miller and the rest of Game Theory but a pretty good example of why bands sought out Mitch Easter as a producer in the Eighties.
There are moments here that rock a bit harder than one would expect ("Not Because You Can") and others ("Together Now, Very Minor") that are a good deal trippier than tracks on earlier Game Theory releases, and still others that are weirder still (the chirpy and manic Three O'Clock-like "The World's Easiest Job"). But, on the whole, Lolita Nation still charms over the course of its 27 cuts. Certainly more odd than I had remembered it being, the album still remains a sort of skewed power pop primer. Ringing hooks abound and one can hear the sort of alt-rock that surely influenced and informed bands as diverse as Pavement, The Posies, and Guided by Voices later on.
All over the 27 songs on Lolita Nation, it's clear that Scott Miller had a knack for smoothing the rough edges of his art into something palatable. I mean, "The Real Sheila" sure as hell sounds like a big Top 40 hit but, yeah, that was never gonna happen. One imagines Miller trying to write the big pop classics but being smart enough, perpetually, to know he was never gonna be Journey. It would be up to contemporaries R.E.M. to somehow remake themselves and their diffuse and somewhat murky college rock into the sort of thing that MTV could pump out to the kids. In the same year that "The One I Love" was getting played by Casey Kasem, one could be a bit angry at the grim reality that it was Stipe, not Scott Miller, that was hitting the Top 10 in America.
How do you improve an album that's already a masterpiece? Well if you're the good folks at Omnivore Recordings you pump this reissue full of rare and previously unreleased tracks, demos, and live cuts; heck, Disc 2 of this version of Lolita Nation could be released on its own to waves of praise. There are radio sessions aplenty where Scott Miller and Game Theory try their hand at classics from Joy Division, The Sex Pistols, and The Smiths. The tracks are all uniformly interesting and not one really feels like a goof; one can hear Miller's love of this music shine through even as he tries to replicate it to somewhat mixed results. Elsewhere, Game Theory crank their way through a rough live version of "Public Image" by P.i.L. The result is something closer to alt-rock than it is to punk and it's like Miller discovered plutonium here by getting at the pop heart of Lydon's screed. There are also a few different versions of album cut "The Waist and the Knees" including one with decidedly Budgie-like drums by Gil Ray. The official version of Lolita Nation is 27 tracks and this bonus disc nearly matches that with 21 rare cuts. Taken as a whole, this is the ultimate Game Theory listening experience. The band hit a peak here that they'd never quite reach again and, in some ways, it's the best work Mitch Easter's ever done as a producer and I say that as someone whose friends have been produced by the guy (D.C. band Dot Dash).
The liner notes booklet tells the story that's not quite contained in the grooves of the album itself and there's almost nothing to fault here in Omnivore Recordings' presentation of Lolita Nation. Perfectly put together back then, Lolita Nation itself represents a high mark in American alt-rock from an era when it was probably being still called college rock by most people. The album is certainly far better than the majority of what passed for smart pop in that era -- listen how Miller makes Elvis Costello's "Tiny Steps" sound like his own song on Disc 2 -- and it's a grim irony that a band that had been produced by Mitch Easter (R.E.M.) was sadly watering down its sound and climbing the charts even as another, perhaps better (in some ways) band was being produced by Mitch Easter only to remain ignored by so many. Taken together with the 21 rarities on Disc 2, the 27 cuts on the official release showcase Game Theory's charms, and Scott Miller's genius. Fans of Scott Miller, Game Theory, and Lolita Nation are well-served here and, if anything, the work put into this release grants the late Miller and his crew the sort of attention they always deserved. As a whole, this release will be counted as one of 2016's best, and most essential, reissues.
Lolita Nation by Game Theory is out on Friday via Omnivore Recordings.