Ask anyone who was there what were the best double albums from the glory days of college rock, and two would rise to the top. Both issued in the summer of 1984 on SST, the Minutemen’s Double Nickels on the Dimeand Hüsker Dü‘s Zen Arcade have towered over American music as indie touchstones. Omnivore Recordings has produced a long-awaited reissue of what would rightfully be the next choice.

First released in 1987, Game Theory’s Lolita Nation was a boon to fans of producer Mitch Easter, who produced R.E.M. and had his own jangle-pop trio, Let’s Active. With principal singer-songwriter-guitarist Scott Miller, Easter had introduced a blend of rich melody and quirky textures on Game Theory’s previous albums, Real Nighttime and The Big Shot Chronicles. Miller described his own voice as a “miserable whine, and it remained a challenge for some listeners. But Miller’s talent blossomed during the mid-’80s, and by the time Alias Records released the 27 tracks on this double-album set, his moment had arrived.

The album unfortunately went out of print quickly, and collectors drove up prices for the scarce CD edition. Omnivore Recordings has released an expanded edition of Lolita Nation with a second disc of 21 bonus tracks.
Miller preferred processed keyboards, and Shelley LaFreniere’s layered keys can overwhelm Miller’s nimble guitar work on tracks like “Slip” and “Nothing New.” But Easter and Game Theory bolstered the impact of even the softer songs on Lolita Nation. The gentle “We Love You Carol and Alison” gains lovely grace, and the remaster expands the dynamic range so it now truly shimmers.

The loud burst that opens the brief “Kenneth–What’s the Frequency?” shows Miller’s love of arcane pop cultural references along with guitar distortion. On “The Waist and the Knees,” bolstered by his then-partner, new guitarist Donnette Thayer, Miller pushes the band into frenetic pop-punk. Yet seconds-long fragments of previous Game Theory cuts along with blended yelps and pings, interrupt the smoother songs. Game Theory took chances on this album, but not all of them succeeded. Dated ‘80s percussion and electronic effects wear thin, as can Miller’s strained high tenor. Still, the witty lyrics, played against Miller’s concentration on life’s brevity and sadness, win out.
The last songs rank among Miller’s best. “One More for Saint Michael” swaggers, while Guillaume Gassuan’s bass on “Chardonnay” provides deft backing for Gil Ray’s drums. “Last Day That We’re Young” is a thundering track, while “Together Now, Very Minor” closes the album on a melancholy note.

A generous bonus disc gives fans of Game Theory who already have Lolita Nation plenty of incentive to repurchase it. Disc two includes an extended version of “Chardonnay” and alternate mixes of album tracks, along with covers of a veritable who’s who of indie faves like David Bowie, The Hollies, The Modern Lovers, The Sex Pistols, The Smiths and The Stooges. Miller’s voice brings out the contempt of John Lydon’s screed on Public Image Ltd.’s “Theme,” the yearning of Ian Curtis on “Love Will Tear Us Apart” and the heartbreak of Elvis Costello’s ballad “Tiny Steps.”

Music compiler and live track co-producer Don Vallor explains the two different versions of “Chardonnay,” noting that Miller “[excised] entire verses rather than [sacrifice] a couple of minutes of the album’s experimentation.” While only four minutes of the original album were given over to “more unconventional material,” these moments were interspersed to create the illusion of a broader experimentation.

Band members, friends and contributors, as well as Okkervil River’s Will Sheff, fill out a colorful booklet with fond memories of Miller, an eloquent testimony to his sonic legacy. Game Theory played a crunchy, jagged power pop that was among the best indie rock of the era, and Lolita Nation shows off the band at their peak.

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