The Loud Family by any other name would sound just as poppy, post-modern, kaleidoscopic and nasty/sweet. In other words, it would sound like Game Theory. Loud Family singer, songwriter and guitarist Scott Miller was the driving force in that California band for much of the ’80s; at the end, the group’s ever-revolving lineup had gone all the way ’round to include original drummer Jozef Becker (who spent the intervening years in Thin White Rope) and longstanding cohort Michael Quercio (ex-Three O’Clock). When Quercio formed Permanent Green Light in Los Angeles, Miller and Becker stayed in San Francisco, taking on three musicians who’d done some Game Theory session work and also had their own band, This Very Window.
Game Theory was always Miller and whomever, so the new name was essentially a symbolic gesture. Brilliantly produced (as was Game Theory) by Mitch Easter, Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things kicks off with a collage of Miller-familiar sound effects and music samples. Having copped his record title from America’s “Horse With No Name,” Miller opens it with “He Do the Police in Different Voices,” a song that quotes lines from “Come Together,” “Crystal Blue Persuasion,” the Pixies’ “Debaser,” Alex Chilton’s “Bangkok” and Television’s “Venus.” Over the course of this nineteen-tune compendium of moody meandering, razor-edge power pop, cracked psychedelic introspection and weirder-than-weird ear candy, it’s clear that Miller is back in a big way. As usual, he surrounds rich veins of classic Big Star-style melodicism and new wavy keyboard pop with a minefield of processed vocals, techno squiggles, cut-and-paste soundscapes and recurring spoken motifs. It’s either the madness of a borderline visionary or the indulgence of a studio/computer geek (Miller has an esoteric programming day job), but either way it works, adding depth, thematic unity and overall sonic craziness to songs that are already uncommonly strong. See the driving, rabidly infectious “Idiot Son,” the propulsive “Sword Swallower” and the disquietingly memorable “Last Honest Face.”
Slouching Towards Liverpool is a between-records stopgap. A must for completists and fans, it features one LP cut, a track from the band’s brief Quercio period, an unapologetic (and perfectly swell) cover of Big Star’s “Back of a Car” and three live tracks, including Game Theory’s “Erica’s Word.”
Democracy ill-serves The Tape of Only Linda: it’s one thing to let the other guys chip in with a few fair-to-middling tunes, but almost all of the songs are group collaborations and they just aren’t as good as Miller’s lone-genius work. The problem with this concise record (ten songs, no tangents!) is not so much the absence of whimsy as it is the weak material. The sound is sharp, and the quintet rocks out with an epic mélange of amped-up guitars, odd rhythms and insinuating keyboard riffs, but the disappointing end result is neither particularly inventive nor especially tuneful. (Despite Miller’s denials, the title clearly seems to be a reference to a notorious bootleg tape of an isolated Linda McCartney.)
Returning to his preferred métier — sprawling power-pop concept albums — Miller used a new lineup (bassist Kenny Kessel, drummer Dawn Richardson and Paul Wieneke on everything else) and such guests as Ken Stringfellow of the Posies and Nina Gordon of Veruca Salt on the monumental Interbabe Concern. Mingling his tremendously hooky pop songwriting with false starts, shards of guitar noise, countermelodies, peculiar instrumentation and found noise, Miller takes power pop into the realm of musique concrète. “I’m Not Really a Spring” and “Don’t Respond, She Can Tell” are winning pop songs, studded with periodic screeching noise, dropping marbles and jarring electronics. The depth of the wordplay in Miller’s lyrics encourages careful reading of the liner notes: the girl in “Sodium Laureth Sulfate” is “a little like / Tendon-slash dimension crash entropica / Cryogen magenta kevlar ebola.” The second half of the album features acoustic guitar songwriting (“Not Expecting Both Contempo and Classique,” “Just Gone”) that owes something to Big Star’s Chris Bell, ameliorating (to a degree) the bludgeoning cascade of sounds in the first half. A great record.
Following his established pattern of alternating sprawling, complex albums with more concise material, Miller made Days for Days the most accessible Loud Family record, but not the most rewarding one. With Wienecke and Richardson gone, and Gil Ray of Game Theory and Alison Faith Levy are in on, respectively, drums and keyboards, but it’s still Miller’s show. He throws in his usual studio weirdness, alternating proper songs with untitled snippets of sci-fi effects, overdubbed noise and vocal loops. The songs are more consistent, but the highs don’t reach the mark of Plants and Birds or Interbabe. The band does rock more convincingly than before, with stomping guitars in “Deee-Pression” and the dizzying opening melody of “Crypto-Sicko” (a bit Big Star, a bit Talking Heads). “Why We Don’t Live in Mauritania” revisits the Beach Boys’ “California Girls” in a sly postmodern guise, with Levy providing incongruous flute accompaniment and Jonathan Segel playing staccato violin lines. The West Coast lifestyle is still the most, Miller asserts, where something’s always going on, “Hangin’ out near Manson slayings / Industrial decayings / Inverse utopia.” Miller’s vocals, never his strongest suit, don’t prevent “Way Too Helpful” or the closing “Sister Sleep” from working as epic ballads.
Attractive Nuisance, made with the same lineup as Days for Days, has a sense of finality rather than perserverance. Behind a somber cover photo of autumn leaves around an empty pool, the album emphasizes two staggeringly brilliant elegies (“Motion of Ariel” and “Blackness, Blackness”) and the haunting “One Will Be the Highway,” which connects a banal late-night cabaret scene in a rock club to the tearful eyes of a dead soldier’s parents. Against this backdrop, the millennarian Miller whimsy of “Backwards Century” is a welcome relief. Levy sings lead on “The Apprentice” and duets with Miller and a muted Kessel on the rousing “Years of Wrong Impressions.”
A relic of the band’s 1996 and 1998 San Francisco performances, From Ritual to Romance draws songs from the Loud Family and Game Theory, adding covers of Eno, Pixies and My Bloody Valentine.
Miller put the Loud Family on hold after touring behind Attractive Nuisance and has played and recorded only sporadically since. In 2005, he and the same lineup (Ray, Levy, Kessel) began an album with Sacramento pop songwriter Anton Barbeau. The first studio record in more than a half-decade under the Loud Family name, What If It Works? is an emphatically democratic affair: four Miller tracks, four Barbeau tunes, one co-written number and three covers. At first glance, the pairing with Barbeau is potentially alarming — while he is an unabashed disciple of Miller’s songwriting, the two write very differently. Miller contemplates grand themes and alludes to Joyce and Nabokov; Barbeau wrote and performed the “Pudenda Song” and “Please Sir I’ve Got a Wooden Leg” and has always been something of a goof. But What If It Works? actually has both more gravitas from Barbeau and more humor from Miller than one might expect. The songwriting is lean, catchy and few sonic oddities. All told, the album is delightful. Kicking off with a skinny-tie rendition of the Stones’ “Rocks Off,” What If It Works? then immediately deconstructs the former with “Song About ‘Rocks Off’,” in which Miller coolly surveys Mick and Keef’s romantic plight. “What if it’s ‘back off’? / What if it’s ‘come a little closer’? / But the mademoiselle hides it well / Ask someone who knows her.”
Barbeau’s contributions begin with a badly dated R.E.M. joke title, “Pop Song 99,” but even this buzzy power-pop confection packs a lot of hidden depth with references to visiting a girlfriend’s home, meeting the mother and the ghost of the father, bemoaning that “the problem with the kids today / is that they don’t care about magic.” He cutely name-drops “St. Nick’s Pink Moon” as well. Although the album lacks a consistent theme or even sound, its many highlights includes a killer old Miller track (“Total Mass Destruction”), the spiraling “Mavis of Maybelline Tower,” a nifty Cat Stevens cover (“I Think I See the Light”) and Barbeau’s splendid title track. There’s a relatively feeble Zombies cover (“Remember You”) and a so-so shared number (“(Kind of) In Love”), but the album has plenty of victories to overcome the few weak points. Barbeau’s facility with keyboards adds some novel touches to the familiar Loud Family hooky pop. All told, if you’re looking for power pop with brains, hooks, and enough wordplay to entice a whole Scrabble tournament, What If It Works? is a great place to find it.
On the theme of inter-artist collaborations, an album of Miller’s songs recorded with Aimee Mann (prior to her renewed commercial prominence) remains locked up in the vaults.