Game Theory, the songwriting vehicle for Northern California native and pop-eclectician Scott Miller, was a clean, and for a time, mildly psychedelic, pop band from northern California, whose departures from conventional meat-and-potatoes reality were more quirky than trippy. Although sometimes lumped in with Los Angeles’ Paisley Undergrounders like the Three O’Clock, Game Theory was more exotic in its songwriting influences, and less in debt to the hippie ’60s for inspiration. The use of synthesizer in addition to guitars also set them apart from both the jangle-poppers and keyboard-heavy new wavers. Like most over-educated popsters, Game Theory tended towards wimpiness — at which times the arcane lyrics don’t help — but the hip catchiness of the songs (mostly) kept them out of trouble.
With awfully thin sound and more enthusiasm than skill, the young guitar-and-keyboards quartet made its promising debut on the self-released (in a garbage bag!) Blaze of Glory. Switching drummers, Game Theory then returned with the schizy six-song Pointed Accounts. The first side is light; guitarist/singer Scott Miller’s songs are slightly off- kilter, with cryptic lines (“She likes metal and glass exact” — huh?), but the hooks make them go down smoothly. Bassist/singer Fred Juhos carries things further out on the second side with two tunes, including “I Wanna Get Hit by a Car,” which generated some college radio airplay but was subsequently downplayed in the Game Theory universe. Juhos’ vision was darker and more intriguing, but he was never Miller’s equal as a tunesmith.
The five-song Distortion, co-produced by Michael Quercio of the Three O’Clock, is fuller, if not as fresh sounding as the debut. Unfortunately, the more baroque presentation makes Miller’s fey falsetto and fragile melodies sound too precious. Pleasant listening, and the good ideas are still there, but it doesn’t draw you in. The French-issued Dead Center compiles the two EPs, adding three extra items.
Real Nighttime, the band’s second album, was produced by Mitch Easter, with Quercio and others helping out. Miller wrote all the songs, except for a cover of Alex Chilton’s “You Can’t Have Me.” (The Big Star influence was profound for Miller; the title is a reference to “Nighttime,” a haunting track from Big Star’s Third/Sister Lovers.) The wispy vocal sound crosses the Three O’Clock with Let’s Active, but the music is tougher and more unpredictable than either influence. Whiny melodica, jagged guitar lines, ominous percussion and noisy sound effects lace through the arrangements, creating an odd but often productive tension. It’s a substantial improvement in production and songwriting, and helped Miller identify his long-term trajectory: consciously undercutting power-pop convention with art-rock and noise and lyrics that range far from the archetypal girls-cars axis. Game Theory steers Real Nighttime into uncharted terrain that, for the most part, gives them something to sing about. Note the amazing album liner notes, written in the style of James Joyce’s Ulysses, a literary touch of the sort Miller would often employ. (Real Nighttime was issued on CD with additional covers of Beatles and Todd Rundgren songs.)
Sticking with Easter and paraphrasing John Cheever for its title, The Big Shot Chronicles lights the afterburners for aggressively electric pop, louder and more powerful than anything in Game Theory’s past. Miller’s new lineup without Juhos doesn’t fool around, keeping the arrangements relatively unadorned; unfortunately, his fly-away singing (self- described here as a “miserable whine” and later characterized as “my usual obnoxious vocals”) can sound silly competing with stacks of highly amplified rock; restrained songs that lean towards acoustic guitars (e.g., “Erica’s World,” “Where You Going Northern”) provide a more conducive setting. With a swell organ hook, the catchy “Crash into June” hits just the right balance and is hummably memorable. “Erica’s Word” was Game Theory’s sole “hit,” in a minor way, and the band was a modest but reliable draw in clubs throughout those years.
The band’s slowly growing profile was sabotaged by the ambitious and occasionally bizarre two-disc Lolita Nation, which adds synthesizers and assorted crazy noises to an inconsistent set of songs — delivered in unpredictable lengths — and immerses them (especially on Side Three) in tape experimentation, spoken-word bridges and other audio ephemera. This new lineup — a resourcefully vocal quintet, here assisted by longtime band associates — provides variegated support that works wonders some of the time but falls flat in spots. Guitarist Donnette Thayer sings commendable lead on a few tunes, but isn’t the strong counterpoint to Miller that would prevent the onset of listening fatigue. Individual tracks like “The Waist and the Knees” crunch with a harder edge than anything Game Theory had previously recorded, but an entire album side is largely sonic experiments and musique concrète (with the dazzling Thayer-sung “Mammoth Gardens” hidden in the midst.) For pop listeners, the real rewards are buried on Side Four: a stunning suite of glistening melodies that closes the record with “Chardonnay,” “Last Day That We’re Young” and a ragged but awe-inspiring ballad, “Together Now, Very Minor.” Unfortunately, most folks probably never got that far.
The same five-person Game Theory then returned to power pop earth with an uninterrupted set of discrete songs on 2 Steps from the Middle Ages. The band’s light mélange of wispy vocals, acoustic/electric guitars and gently colorful keyboards makes an unfailingly pleasant (except for the clunky distraction of Gil Ray’s drumming) and intelligent — but utterly uninvolving — sound. The bland consistency of both Miller’s strained (and hookless) melodies and Easter’s uneventful production damns 2 Steps to a familiar monotony.
Along with Miller’s amusingly self-deprecating liner notes and substantial samples of every prior Game Theory record (but only his songs), the ample 22-cut Tinker to Evers to Chance compilation offered charming new recordings (by an ad hoc band) of several old songs — two reclaimed from Blaze of Glory — and a remix of Pointed Accounts‘ “Penny, Things Won’t.”
Distortion of Glory, released on Enigma in 1993, assembled pieces of Blaze of Glory, Distortion and 1983’s Pointed Accounts of People You Know along with a previously hard-to-find single, “Dead Center,” which makes Miller’s debatable point, “I’m not on the fringe / I’m dead center.” Miller regrouped Game Theory — with Quercio and ex-Thin White Rope drummer Jozef Becker (Ray shifting from percussion to guitar and keyboards) — but then abandoned it to form the Loud Family, which embraced an equally eclectic approach to Miller’s songwriting, but a stronger rock emphasis. He performed as the Loud Family, with a rotating cast of supporting musicians, from 1991 to 2006. Miller died in 2013, spurring heartfelt accolades from such icons of literate pop as Aimee Mann, Ted Leo and A.C. Newman (New Pornographers). With renewed interest in his work, Omnivore Records announced plans to reissue the entire Game Theory catalogue, from beginning to end.
A remastered Blaze of Glory, with extensive bonus tracks, including songs from Miller’s Alternative Learning days and jokey “sound experiments,” kicked off the series in September 2014. It’s not the best introduction to the band’s work, with some shaky songwriting and Miller’s home recording values, but the remastered Dead Center is unfailingly good. Omnivore took the French compilation and added a suite of live tracks and some ace covers (Box Tops, Badfinger, Cat Stevens, Roxy Music) as well as extremely thoughtful liner notes that place Miller’s songwriting in a broader context. (Fred Juhos requested that his three songs be omitted from the compilation.) The sound is strong, with richer guitar and a more forceful rhythm section that adds needed heft to Miller’s thin vocals. For a Record Store Day celebration, Omnivore also reissued the Pointed Accounts and Distortion EPs on 10-inch vinyl. The series will continue with the band’s later materials, including the reissued Mitch Easter records, in 2015.
Prior to joining Game Theory, Donnette Thayer led Sacramento’s Veil (unrelated to a contemporaneous British quartet), a slightly tacky melodic rock quartet, whose competent but colorless 1984 LP of her songs was produced by Scott Miller and engineered by former GT drummer Dave Gill. After leaving Game Theory (and Miller, who had been her boyfriend), Thayer joined Steve Kilbey of the Church in a new romantic and creative relationship to form the group Hex.