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Holy Hell! Days for Days Turns 20

Holy Hell! Days for Days Turns 20

Four albums in, The Loud Family showed the same diligence and ambition as Game Theory.

Four albums into Scott Miller’s first band, Game Theory, the sprawling and intricate power pop of Lolita Nation (1987) collided with the songwriter’s willfully obtuse inclusions of tape collages, vocal snippets, and musical shards blended up in a studio Cuisinart. That double-LP earned the band critical plaudits, consolidating the gains made by a Northern California-based ensemble that epitomized the more adventurous, experimental fringes of the decade’s college radio scene. Romantic breakups and marital alliances weakened the band stability as the ‘80s drove on, but the silence did not last.

Miller wanted a harder, less jangly and twinkly sound. The cleverly named The Loud Family hinted at its leader’s firm grasp on pop culture as well as erudition applied with a nod and a wink. His self-deprecating persona as lyricist and vocalist set his textured and densely recorded tunes (thanks to co-producer Mitch Easter for much of the run of both groups) in a curiously lighthearted mood even when the contents proved were doleful or disdainful. Luckily, Miller’s humor softened the blows.

This wry and winning attitude can be heard on such Loud Family albums as Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things (1992) and The Tape of Only Linda (1994), whose titles echo a classic rock fan’s insider jokes. Easter left before Interbabe Concern with Miller’s partner in tow. Miller took over production for that post-breakup 1996 disc, and those results felt suitably if disconcertingly fragmented. Again, his pop leanings contended against his penchant for chopping down what he had built up, and he left the mess on record for the listener to shuffle through. With its disorienting and bipolar juxtapositions,Interbabe can be difficult to sit through all at once, yet it remains a testament to the singer-songwriter’s honesty.

Reliably on schedule,Days for Days arrived two years later, with an unusual tack arrangement: nine even-numbered and, for him, fairly conventional songs were separated by nine odd-numbered assemblages of the type which rippled across Lolita Nation. Four albums in, The Loud Family showed the same diligence and ambition as Game Theory.

Over 10 years on, one can argue that Days achieves a cogency that Lolita aimed at but didn’t hit. At 50 minutes rather than its predecessor’s 75, it benefits from a streamlined dynamic. Kicking off with one of the Family’s punchiest moments, “Cortex the Killer” lives up to another impressive pun aimed from Miller’s quiver.

Game Theory’s nimble drummer Gil Ray backs up Miller again, and Kenny Kessel returns on bass as the only other original Family member. Alison Faith Levy’s soulful voice and early-‘70s Tin Pan Alley piano stylings suit the ambiance well. She adds an earthier mood to Miller’s cerebral talents, and her array of inventive keyboard riffs sets off Miller’s impressive knack for catchy guitar chords to improve the band’s full impact.

The brooding “Good, There Are No Lions in the Street” and “Deee-Pression” express Miller’s worldview, suspicious of the outer and the inner realms alike. “Way Too Helpful” bounces along, while “Mozart Sonatas” shows Levy’s piano and electronics compressed memorably into their own miniature tribute to classical genius and eccentric temperaments. “Businessmen Are Okay” ambles along, like “Lions” taking its time to roam the grooves. “Crypto-Sicko” amps up the volume, while “Why We Don’t Live in Mauritania” offers a look at Miller and Kessel’s Bay Area take on geopolitics.

What grows on the patient listener is the skill with which the experimental pieces, dismissed by some critics as tinkering throwaways, bridge each of the full-fledged songs. Snippets of themes elaborated in previous or upcoming tracks emerge with repeated listening. Bits of tunes tempt as if about to glide into their own songs only to halt or saunter into the next real song, an unpredictability that enhances this ambitious CD. The album concludes with the eight-minute “Sister Sleep,” which was then the group’s longest track. It’s dense atmosphere segues into the band’s follow-up, Attractive Nuisance, which continues with the band and Miller’s intelligent, searching and moving indie pop.

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