Friday, June 9, 2017

What The Whole World Wants: A Look At The Reissue Of Game Theory's Final Studio Album From Omnivore Recordings

We are here at the presumed conclusion of one of the great string of rock reissues in the modern era. The folks at Omnivore Recordings have done an amazing job at resurrecting the works of the late Scott Miller. His band, Game Theory, offered up some of the sharpest -- intellectually and musically -- music of the college rock era and, thankfully, all that stuff is back in print and surrounded by dozens of rare tracks on each of these individual album reissues.

The band's last album, 1988's 2 Steps From The Middle Ages, is now here. Out today on Omnivore Recordings, this is probably the easiest Game Theory release to embrace. If the dense material of earlier records like 1987's Lolita Nation is here streamlined, the overall magic of the band remains intact. It is, of course, as fine a record from the era as one is likely to encounter and one that, oddly, doesn't sound very dated (thank producer Mitch Easter for that).

Playful opener "Room For One More, Honey" chimes like R.E.M. in the same era had they jettisoned stuff like "Orange Crush" from their catalog and stuck ringing guitars back in the grooves of their album cuts, while "What The Whole World Wants" bursts forth with the sort of power-pop that remains timeless. Choppy guitars and pounding drums (from the late Gil Ray) anchor this cut as they do so many here and a listener can't help but think how much louder this record seems compared to the earlier albums. Still, there's no shame in that as Scott Miller was pursuing his own unique muse with the sort of creativity that was the hallmark of his tenure as a singer and songwriter. The excellent "Rolling With The Moody Girls" echoes what a band like The Smithereens was doing in this era while owing more to the sort of alt-rock being pursued by XTC and The Pursuit Of Happiness in 1988. Miller was an odd cat, thankfully, and he could indulge himself with power-pop that had heft even as he refused to dumb it down. Was this proto-metal or what? Certainly more crunchy than anything Elvis Costello or Robyn Hitchcock was doing then, Miller was racing to catch up with them as a lyricist and he seems now, frankly, nearly their equal and certainly one of the most important, if sometimes overlooked, songwriters from the late Eighties.

Elsewhere, "Throwing The Election" opens with a nearly Deep Purple-worthy organ hook, while "Leilani" is a uniquely Miller-style near-ballad in the manner of so many of the tracks on the mammoth and (partly) unwieldy Lolita Nation but it is sort of sweet and a kind of breather near the end of the album proper here. 2 Steps From The Middle Ages ends with the lilting "Initiations Week", a Miller look at college life even as he's here perfecting what we called college rock back then. The cut has that sad, almost wistful sound that Miller could pull off so easily thanks to his lyrical and musical gifts and it eases a listener into the 11 bonus cuts here in this fine reissue of 2 Steps From The Middle Ages.

There's a subdued live run at "Together Now, Very Minor" from the earlier Lolita Nation, a slew of demos, and a stab at "Bad Machinery", then a current number from Mitch Easter's own Let's Active on the group's Every Dog Has His Day album, also from 1988. But, clearly, the bonus cut here that everyone is going to be talking about in reviews of this reissue is the beautiful, solo take on "America" by Simon and Garfunkel from Scott Miller. In 1988, the first election year post-Iran-Contra, it was the sort of thing that would have caused idealistic listeners like me to look back to a (supposedly) purer era and an embrace by Scott of that "idealistic" Sixties vibe, the same vibe that contemporary acts like The Rain Parade, The Bangles, and even early R.E.M. were wholly embracing. What all that means is that Scott Miller was, as always, making music that was timeless in the way that the music of his inspirations was.

The contributions to the liner notes booklet from musicians Franklin Bruno and Ken Stringfellow (The Posies), original album producer Mitch Easter, and reissue producer Dan Vallor sound a bittersweet note which is understandable given the fairly recent death of drummer Gil Ray. There's another bittersweet feel here thanks to this being the last studio album from the band and, presumably, the end of the run of Game Theory reissues from Omnivore Recordings. A direct record in the GT catalog, 2 Steps From The Middle Ages is a concise, easy-to-love album, rendered here even crisper and brighter by reissue producers Dan Vallor, Pat Thomas, and Cheryl Pawelski. Fans of bands as seemingly disparate as The Pursuit Of Happiness, Cheap Trick, Green-era R.E.M., and The Smithereens should easily warm to this one if they weren't on board already back in 1988. For those of us who knew and loved this record nearly 30 years ago, this is the version we've waited for. If Lolita Nation is the critical peak of Scott Miller's climb to the top of the songwriting Everest, this is his semi-relaxed "touchdown dance" upon victoriously reaching that summit. A rare, uniquely Eighties blend of power-pop and smart lyrics, 2 Steps From The Middle Ages from Scott Miller and Game Theory is clearly the neglected masterpiece in the band's back-catalog and, perhaps, their most listenable record.

Originally released in 1988, 2 Steps From The Middle Ages from Game Theory is out today in this new, expanded reissue package via Omnivore Recordings. It's time to offer up a big "thank you" to the folks at the label who have made this string of GT releases so important, and so much fun to absorb and enjoy.

[Photo: Robert Toren]