Game Theory, the name under which singer-songwriter-guitarist Scott Miller directed shifting lineups in the Bay Area, earned acclaim through a series of ambitious full-length jangle pop successes and low-budget ep’s and singles. In a few years, Miller developed an unpredictably paced, lyrically witty and densely febrile approach. Critics called the 1987 double-album Lolita Nation the cult-band’s masterpiece. How could Miller and (for once) the same musicians repeat the trick on a mere 13 cuts? The band wisely retreated from the disorienting, fragmented and frenetic montages which continued to jumble up their accessible indie pop-rock. Conventional never applies entirely to whatever Miller made with this band and his next, The Loud Family. But Mitch Easter, returning for production duties, reined in Miller’s experimental bent when it came to 2 Steps from the Middle Ages. When it appeared in 1988, the slickness of many of the catchy tracks may have surprised listeners expecting an angular, erudite array of wry wordplay and sly talent.

Instead, the calmer pace of what was partially a solo record (as that line-up disintegrated) for Real Nighttime (1985) and the song craft and casual confidence shown on The Big Shot Chronicles (1986) returned for what would be Game Theory’s final album. Combining the solid support of players who could by now back up Miller’s demanding compositions with another textured production by Easter, 2 Steps from the Middle Ages hearkens back to the pleasant melodies of those two albums. Yet, enriched by the experience the band gained in making the challenging, at times exhausting Lolita Nation, its successor remains the newcomer’s best entry point for one of the 80s’ best and most overlooked bands.

For veteran fans, this easier album still kept one’s ears alert. The subtly trotting rhythms of “Wyoming” featured guitarist Donnette Thayer’s support, and her voice meshes with Miller’s well. His self-described “miserable whine” gains velocity when he fronts the sleek “In a DeLorean” deftly in its streamlined speed.

A few listeners may have nodded knowingly when Miller, with his encyclopedic command of pop references, slipped in an earnest sax riff on “Rolling with the Moody Girls.” Nods to Gerry Rafferty’s MOR staple “Baker Street” nestled oddly next to the bombastic synth-pop riff on “What the Whole World Wants.” But Miller and cohorts aimed for an approachable, likeable sound on 2 Steps from the Middle Ages. Easter and the band may have tired of the adjective “cult” linked irrevocably to Game Theory. The newer songs kept the melodies that Miller and his band could channel into hummable choruses and jaunty delivery. With no trace of the determined iconoclasm of Miller’s penchant for breaking up song structures into shattered patterns and shards, the 1988 album feels self-satisfied on these friendly tracks. Many could blend into a coffeehouse mixtape without any louche habitués firmly requesting that the barista change “to songs others wanted to hear.”

The payoff comes on edgier tracks. The opener “Room for One More, Honey” takes its title from a Twilight Zone episode. Blending a cheerier touch with a bit of menace, Miller achieves a convincing balance between bright and dark. “The Picture of Agreeability” risks Miller’s whining, but it’s very catchy. “Amelia, Have You Lost” adds a plaintive slide guitar to a gracefully downbeat ballad. This promotes Miller’s preference for characters who express loneliness and heartbreak. “You Drive” benefits from Shelley LaFreniere’s keyboards, as Miller kept his trademark quirk of a twinkly if processed beat.

Four entries ending the original release slow it down. “Throwing the Election” has Thayer, drummer Gil Ray and bassist Guillaume Gassuan credited along with Miller as songwriters, the only such collaboration here. It takes an extended analogy of sabotaging one’s chances, which surely stands as an epitaph for Game Theory. Superficially it blends into similar, midtempo songs, yet its lyrics make it a cautionary tale.

Omnivore reissued the album last year with a bonus disc of 11 tracks. Demos of a few of the album’s more mainstream tunes, live reprises of the riff-laden workout “The Waist and the Knees” from Lolita and a trio of older originals including the wonderful “Sleeping Through Heaven” mingle with covers of Mitch Easter’s “Bad Machinery” from Let’s Active, and a respectful take on Paul Simon’s “America.” The last of Game Theory’s re-releases kindles a hope that The Loud Family receives its own sonic tribute in timely fashion.

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