The Upshot: Expanded ’86 album, the latest in the label’s vault-clearing of the Scott Miller back catalog, finds the band at its height of power pop perfection.
BY MICHAEL TOLAND
In the lore of ‘80s alt.rock forerunner Game Theory, it’s the 1987 experimental double album Lolita Nation that bears the most weight. Rich, sprawling and almost ridiculously ambitious, it’s definitely a unique experience in the band’s catalog. But is it truly the California band’s best? The argument could be made that accolade goes to The Big Shot Chronicles, released in 1986 and the quartet’s ticket to college radio demi-fame. Fortunately, Omnivore releases an expanded edition of this long out-of-print gem as part of its GT reissue series for a long-overdue reappraisal.
Though the band’s psychedelic influences take a back seat, its potent, patented blend of power pop, new wave and postpunk was at its height on this record. As a result, Chronicles contains many of GT’s most direct and hard-hitting songs. “Here It Is Tomorrow,” “Never Mind’ and “I’ve Tried Subtlety” are nearly blunt in their brute musical force, wrapping leader Scott Miller’s wordplay in rock as raw as GT ever got. (“I’ve tried subtlety/But I will not anymore” indeed.) “Erica’s Word,” “The Only Lesson Learned” and “Crash Into June” crank the hooks and the melodic effervescence to magnificent levels, the former establishing the band as college radio stars and the latter sounding like a long-lost Cars single. “Too Closely,” “Where You Going Northern” and “Book of Millionaires” essay a particular sort of folk rock, that last being heavy on keyboardist Shelly LaFreniere’s analog synth work. And speaking of folk, the sparse ballad “Like a Girl Jesus” and the intricately picked (if exceptionally mysterious) “Regenisraen” – performed by Miller with drummer Gil Ray on second guitar – strip down GT’s rich sonics for tracks of surpassing beauty. Cut for cut, this may well be Game Theory’s most instantly appealing and satisfying album.
The bonus tracks include the usual live, demo and rehearsal cuts, including Lou Reed and Roxy Music covers, a blistering version of “Friend of the Family” and a nice take on Big Star’s “Jesus Christ.” But reissue producers Dan Vallor and Pat Thomas also dug up some studio outtakes of significant interest. Miller and co. put their own stamp on Todd Rundgren’s “Couldn’t I Just Tell You” (just right for them), Vince Guaraldi’s “Linus and Lucy” theme (pure delight) and, of all things, “Seattle,” the theme song to the late ’60s TV show Here Come the Brides, also covered by Perry Como and Bobby Sherman, and here given a lovely solo acoustic reading. There’s also a full-band version of “Like a Girl Jesus” that gives the track a different, almost lighter-waving feel. Best of all, though, is “Come Home With Me,” another solo acoustic song that features Miller at his most vulnerable – perhaps that’s why it didn’t make the original LP.
Produced to perfection by Mitch Easter, The Big Shot Chronicles holds up as well as any masterpiece from the 1980s. The quality of the songs, consistency of the performances and giddy joie de vivre make one of the best, if not THE best, items in Game Theory’s sparkling catalog.
DOWNLOAD: “Crash Into June,” “Regenisraen,” “I’ve Tried Subtlety”
Ed note: the Blurt office took a vote and it was determined we would award this album a “5” out of 5 stars, a distinction rarely bestowed here. But as this record, staggeringly great, has stood the test of time, we feel that if any of our reviews deserve a 5… Hearing Scott Miller rework that Rundgren song and turn it into a virtual Big Star anthem sealed the deal.