We resume our coverage of the Omnivore label’s overhaul of the late, great Davis, Calif., band’s back catalog—we profiled Scott Miller and his band’s initial waxing, 1982’s Blaze of Glory, late last year at BLURT, subsequently reviewing the Dead Center compilation a couple of months later. So why stop now? Prof. Toland hereby picks up the story with Game Theory’s acknowledged masterpiece, 1985’s Mitch Easter-produced Real Nighttime.
BY MICHAEL TOLAND
By the mid-‘80s, Scott Miller and Game Theory were ready to make a “real” album. That’s no slight on the slapdash brilliance of the band’s homespun debut Blaze of Glory or the EPs that followed. But by 1985 Miller was ready to record in a professional studio with a name producer, and he smartly chose Mitch Easter, whose work with R.E.M. and his own Let’s Active pointed to a like mind. The result was Real Nighttime, released in 1985 on the prolific and sadly defunct Enigma Records, and the record many point to as Game Theory’s most lasting legacy.
One of GT’s greatest strengths, and one shared with fellow travelers the dB’s during Chris Stamey’s tenure, was its ability to successfully blend its ‘60s Beatlemania and ‘70s Big Star influence with then-current new wave aesthetics. In particular the band had no fear of twinkly synthesizers and cheesy organs, and the keyboards give these songs a slick sheen that in no way interferes with the songs. Indeed, the easy blend of classic and modern gives Real Nighttime a sound that’s more timeless than dated. Listen to how Nan Becker’s wacked-out synth licks in “Curse of the Frontier Land” enhance, rather than distract from, its jangly power pop crunch, or the nearly invisible Simmons drum pads used throughout. The album sounded fresh then, and timely now, as more modern bands rediscover the synth patches of yesteryear.
Of course, for all the talk of Miller’s infamous obsession with production tricks, which would reach full realization a couple of albums later and in his ‘90s band the Loud Family, his work is still about songs. As always Miller and the band prove their mastery at, well, everything: the near-perfect jangle pop of “I Mean It This Time,” the wordplay-happy power pop of “She’ll Be a Verb,” the new wavey folk rock of “I Turned Her Away,” the 60s-meets-Big Star pop of “24,” the heartbreak balladry of “If and When It Falls Apart,” the caffeinated blitz-pop of the title track. The band pays tribute to a key influence while still maintaining its own identity by filtering Big Star’s bitter “You Can’t Have Me” through its distinctive vision, making what was then a hip obscurity nearly a signature tune.
The album is strong enough on its own, but, this being a deluxe reissue, it’s enhanced with bonus tracks. Bassist Fred Juhos’ piano ‘n’ synth-driven “Faithless” comes across like a classic rock tune trying to put a new wave spin on itself, and is no less charming for that. Several live cuts from the post-Nighttime version of the band showcase new and old numbers, from “The Red Baron” to “Curse of the Frontier Land,” plus a queasy cover of Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street.” Miller gets plenty of solo showcases, including a pair of recordings of “Girl w/a Guitar,” a co-write with the Three O’Clock’s Michael Quercio that became one of that band’s standards, and an acoustic take on Queen’s “Lily of the Valley.” Best of all, though, is the gorgeous “Any Other Hand,” performed solely by Miller and his trusty 12-string, and as stunning a song as any in the GT repertoire. Why it didn’t make the original track listing is a mystery.
The Omnivore edition includes ruminations on the record by writer Byron Coley and the New Pornographers’ Carl Newman, as well as an interview with Mitch Easter. This is no mere archival recording, however – Real Nighttime sounds so fresh and timeless it might as well have been made by a brand-new band.
Photo Credit: Robert Toren