Game Theory

Yet another unjustly forgotten '80s college rock darling, the Game Theory competed with the dB's, Let's Active, and the Bangles as standard-bearers of jangly retro-'60s pop-rock with a new wave twist. More than any of the above, Game Theory owed a huge debt to '70s proto-power-poppers Big Star - leader Scott Miller (the auteur who essentially is Game Theory) mewls in a self-described "miserable whine" that often sounds like a painfully slavish imitation of Bell/Chilton at their most high-pitched falsetto. The Game Theory have a second obstacle in addition to the weak vocalizing - while Miller proves himself a highly talented, idiosyncratic pop songwriter, the bands he assembles are no match for his songs. Game Theory were never convincing rocking out and sound flimsy when they try, and while their quirks can sound interesting, most of their albums are misproduced to make the band sound weaker than it probably was. Despite those flaws, Game Theory made it through with twinkly, catchy indie-pop with '80s new wave flourishes. Miller's melodies are angular but sink in after a few listens, and while they always stand in the shadow of Big Star, they're more than worthy heirs to the tradition. Game Theory's albums never sold well, even on the modest indie-rock level, which didn't bother Miller since his day job as a computer programmer pays quite well. After breaking up Game Theory in the late '80s, Miller formed the similar Loud Family, whose CDs I haven't aquired yet but may eventually review if I can lay hands upon them. Unfortunately, Game Theory's alleged masterpiece, 1987's high-concept double-album Lolita Nation, is out of print and practically impossible to find these days (rumors are that mint copies can fetch up to $150 on E-bay), so I'm missing one major hole in their discography.

Blaze of Glory (1982) ***1/2

Recorded on an 8-track in Miller's bedroom before the band had played a single gig, this engaging disc of new-wave Chilton-philia captures an energetic young pop band racing through inconsistent material with fresh gusto - in other words, a typical unpolished but exciting debut. With only 500 copies pressed, funds were so low that they couldn't even afford a cover, resorted to issuing the LP inside a white plastic trash bag. While some of the more new wave synth touches and jerky rhythms date the record (particularly on the Devo-ish "T.G.A.R.T.G." and the hyperfrenetic throwaway "White Blues"), "The Young Drug" perfectly captures early '80s college-kid decadence, and "It Gives Me Chills" nails a perfect Lindsey Buckingham imitation. The two standout tracks contrast the sunny glee side of pop (the exuberant "Date With An Angel") and the wistfully downbeat melancholy side ("Bad Year at UCLA", which Miller wrote because "Bad Year at UCD" [University of California at Davis, the college he was then attending] didn't scan). While disparaged by some critics and even Miller himself, it's really no weaker than subsequent Game Theory albums - though the production and performances are formative, Miller's songwriting muse was in full bloom from the start.

Pointed Accounts of People You Know EP(1983) ***

Less dependent on new wave synth touches and more assured (not to mention better produced) than the debut, the first widely distributed Game Theory release starts off with two excellently melodic tracks, "Penny Things Won't" and "Metal and Glass Exact", which are followed by a so-so Miller tune, "Selfish Again," and a generic early '80s new wave tune "Life In July" written by keyboardist Nancy Becker. Lesson: don't let your girlfriend write songs for your band.

Distortion EP (1984) ***

Now this 5-song EP pushes a wee bit too far into early '80s new wave territory. I don't mind when the tunes are as gloriously new romantic-melodic as the retro sci-fi "Nine Lives To Rigel Five" and the rushing "Too Late For Tears," but the other 3 songs I could do without, particularly bassist Fred Juno's excreable "Kid Convenience." Lesson: don't let your no-talent bass player write songs. Unless, of course, he's Paul McCartney or Brian Wilson or somebody.

Distortion of Glory (1994) ***1/2

The debut album and the two EPs reviewed above reissued on one CD for a nifty primer on early Game Theory. There's one bonus track, the experimental 6-minute "Dead Center" which has an interview with Miller in which he names his influences as "the Beatles, Pink Floyd, the Monkees, Alex Chilton....oh, you mean non-musically? James Joyce..."

Real Nighttime (1985) ****

At first I couldn't get past the flimsy production which makes the band sound way too brittle and thin, but now I've fallen for what I've decided is the band's best album (bar the unheard-by-my-ears Lolita Nation). Despite Mitch Easter's misproduction, the band sounds more professional and versatile than before, ditching some of the dated new wave flourishes for a crisper, jangle-pop sound. It's here that the Big Star comparisons are most apt (the album even contains a spaced-out cover of "You Can't Have Me," along with Beatles & Rundgren covers). Highlights abound on every turn, opening with young whelp Miller musing on being 23 not 24, turning dark into the Manson-atics of "Friend of the Family", cackling decadent on "Rayon Drive," in which Miller ponders whether he'll get laid with Reni studying her PhD. "If and When It Falls Apart," stands as perhaps Miller's most affecting heartbreak ballad, "She'll Be a Verb," shows off his college-boy cleverness, and the title track lives up to its title.

Big Shot Chronicles (1986) ***1/2

Firing the original Game Theory and replacing them with an entirely new band, now Miller's songs finally get the competent, powerful-enough indie-rock backing they deserve. Problem is, losing some of the odd quirkiness of the old new wave Game Theory, the new indie-rock Game Theory sound somewhat less distinctive musically, despite the added muscle and professionalism. Also, Miller's melodies aren't quite as strong and accessible as on the previous album. Nevertheless, this is another strong set; though some of harder rockers sound uncomfortably forced, that's made up for with songs such as the unearthly ballad "Regenisraen" perhaps the most melodically gorgeous song Miller has written, as well as more typical biting post-Big Star pop like the wonderfully titled "Crash Into June." The reissue adds a cover of Peanuts' "Linus and Lucy" and a generic mid-'80s synth pop tune leftover from Fred Juno, plus some pretty cover of "Seattle", originally by who-knows-who. Come home with me, girl with a guitar; I've tried subtlety before, so let's just crash into June.

I almost made it without making the obligatory pun on the album's title, Big Star Chronicles, but like every other critic in the world, I really couldn't resist the snarky little jab.

Lolita Nation (1987)

A highly experimental, ambitious double-album packaged in an homage to James Joyce that is allegedly the band's masterpiece. Unfortunately, it's out of print and practically impossible to find.

Two Steps From the Middle Ages

I have this, but it's currently 3,000 miles on the other side of the planet from where I'm sitting now. I haven't heard it in a long time, but I remember it being awful, and put me off the band for years (it was the first Game Theory album I picked up; good thing I decided to give'em a second chance after hearing word from fans that I shouldn't judge them from their easily worst album).

Tinker to Evers to Chance (1990)

Post-breakup best-of compiled by Miller himself. Includes the usual rarities to entice hardcore fans who already own all of the original albums, such as "Beach State Rocking" from Miller's pre-Game Theory combo Alternate Learning.

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If and when it falls apart, crash into June.