The band’s been raved about by critics, cherished by fans, name-checked by a gently teasing Pavement and produced by Mitch Easter. Why does Game Theory remain the proverbial cult favorite?
The band’s been raved about by critics, cherished by fans, name-checked by a gently teasing Pavement and produced by Mitch Easter. Why does Game Theory remain the proverbial cult favorite? The final formation of these ‘80s indie-rock Bay Area innovators incorporated three friends of its lead singer-songwriter-guitarist Scott Miller. As Brett Milano’s deft biography Don’t Thank Me All At Once documents, Miller’s romantic breakup and the collapse of yet another unstable ensemble led to Miller’s retreat from the spotlight. (Compounded by the band’s critically acclaimed but poorly distributed output preventing him from making a living as a musician.) He recovered in 1989 with a fresh start.
Scott’s childhood friend, Joe Becker from Thin White Rope, entered on drums. Gil Ray moved from percussion to guitar and keyboards. After the recent winding-down of the Three O’Clock, bassist Michael Quercio provided a richly compatible sensibility, energized by a shared love for psychedelic pop of the ‘60s. This collection of home, studio and live songs and demos from this period fills out Omnivore Recording’s thorough re-releases of the band’s back catalogue. Across the Barrier of Sound: PostScript gathers material which has never been heard by the general public. As co-compiler Dan Vallor muses, Game Theory’s ambitious Lolita Nation (1987) got slammed for being too arty. A year later, the streamlined Two Steps from the Middle Ages, got thumped for being too accessible. As before and after in Scott Miller and company’s career, they couldn’t win.
The CD offers two dozen songs from 1989-1990. Ten of them appear on the successor to Game Theory’s first album. The Loud Family’s Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things (1993 but well worth the wait) amped up volume, toughened texture and mixed delivery between ballad and distortion, propulsion and contemplation. Preliminary versions of these 10 solid compositions reveal Miller and company’s skill. As Scott wrote in his compilation of Top 20 lists, Music: What Happened?, about a late-career tune from his beloved Beatles, this was a group who precisely knew what worked. Miller’s ear for subtle progressions, creative chords and inventive lyrics shares this knack. Comparing songs that made it into the Loud Family’s early repertoire with others which did not, heard on this disc, a sly difference persists.
That is, its lesser efforts, respectable as all tracks here remain, attest to the band’s knowledge of what hooks the listener and what rewards the players. A few tracks sustain the band’s style, but an elusive lack of completeness accompanies them, even if barely detectible. To its collective credit, none of the inclusions on this posthumous collection fall flat. No noodlings or backing tracks or insider joke-banter. As with Game Theory, so the Loud Family: this joint discography rarely stumbles in smarts or flair.
Tight renditions of covers enliven this variety, too. They seamlessly alternate with Game Theory’s contributions, demonstrating the rich heritage in pop and rock revived by them as fans as well as musicians. Eno’s “Needles in the Camel’s Eye,” a haunting “The Door into Summer” first appearing on a Monkees record, Big Star’s “Back of a Car,” the Beatles’ “All My Loving” and finally and fittingly, the Three O’Clock’s delicate and menacing “A Day in Erotica” present intelligent interpretations integrating Game Theory’s warmth and, by now, familiarity among the four.
Two fan favorites from the Loud Family’s first assemblage earn double credit. “Inverness” lilts while Miller challenges “I bet you never actually saw a person die of loneliness.” What on paper looks a mouthful of pretense in Miller’s plaintive vocal (an acquired taste for some) turns into an apt riposte from a jilted swain. A restless “Idiot Son” gallops, its home demo working out jangle, and the second try crafting a ditty whose message of ecological doom and perhaps the return of the Prodigal Son haunts rather than enchants. This tension between musical form and verbal function deepens the impact of Miller and confreres, and elevates this release above the rank of archival odds and nostalgic ends.
Now, one wishes this label continues its project with expanded packaging of Loud Family albums, and looks for a generous sponsor in underwriting the bringing back into print both of Milano’s biography and Miller’s reflections. While Across the Barrier of Sound: PostScript glides to a smooth landing after the bumpy run of Game Theory, fans and newcomers await the same energy spent on introducing Scott Miller, Gil Ray and their fellow bandmates who re-launched their sonic Family to soar in the ‘90s.