Review: Game Theory’s Across the Barrier of Sound: PostScript

The album is an invitation to burrow into the work of one of the great cult figures of indie rock.

Game Theory, PostScript
Photo: Robert Toren

The strain of 1980s alternative music that straddles the line between post-punk and power pop used to be called college rock. Game Theory, whose very name signals their intellectual bona bides, made what could best be described as “grad-school rock.” The band took all the hallmarks of college rock—jangly guitars, vocal harmonies, dense, allusive lyrics—and cranked them up to peaks of brain-twisting intensity. Their music is like a sonic dissertation that aims to read rock classicism and punk/new wave through the lens of Jacques Derrida. In their songs, ideas will often emerge and percolate briefly before a hard tape cut sends things off in a totally different direction. And despite the sometimes challenging nature of their songs, Game Theory made some of the most beautiful, rewarding music of the ’80s.

After Game Theory fizzled out at the end of the decade, principal singer-songwriter Scott Miller formed the Loud Family, a band that was somehow both more accessible and a little sharper around the edges. In the ensuing years, the Loud Family’s discography has remained fairly easy to find, while Game Theory became, for a while at least, one of the great lost bands of its era. None of their albums sold terribly well and original pressings went for hundreds of dollars on Amazon. Rights issues prevented the recordings from getting reissued, and the band never enjoyed the type of posthumous revival that, say, Big Star had. But after Miller suddenly passed away in 2013, Omnivore Recordings finally began a proper reissue campaign.

The latest release in that campaign, Across the Barrier of Sound: PostScript, isn’t a studio album, but it’s also not quite an odds-and-sods collection. The band’s lineup had always been a bit in flux, and before they broke up Miller recruited Michael Querico of the Three O’Clock and Jozef Becker, with whom he’d been in a previous band called Alternate Learning, to join him and longtime member Gil Ray. Instrumental duties were shuffled about and the group set out on a tour that would prove to be their swansong. Though this lineup never recorded a proper album, they worked on a batch of songs that are assembled here. And while many of these tracks were later re-worked for Loud Family’s Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things, it’s interesting to hear them rendered by the final incarnation of Game Theory. The package is rounded out with some other home demos, live songs, a few covers, and some remixes. For Miller’s fans, it’s a heretofore unseen window into a transitional period in his career.

Despite the fact that most of his output mainly consisted of fractured art-pop song-smithery, Miller was always a massive Beatles fan, and PostScript opens with a home recording of the Fab Four’s “All My Loving.” There isn’t much to the recording on a technical level—just Miller’s warbly tenor and, eventually a gently strummed, fuzztone guitar—but it’s certainly big-hearted. In his hands, the song swaps out the wide-eyed teeny-bopper innocence of the original for a nervy energy that belies the peppy lyrics. Miller’s wavering voice doesn’t exactly make his narrator sound confident that the object of his affections is saving her love for him. Though its lyrics aren’t by Miller, the song crystallizes what makes his work so compelling.

Game Theory specialized in giving voice to and working through the emotions of people more comfortable with intellect than feeling. One of the central questions of Miller’s songs is why something that’s supposed to be pleasurable (usually love) so often results in a bewildering or crushing sadness. That paradox is exemplified by “Inverness,” the swooning chorus of which (“I bet you’ve never actually seen a person die of loneliness”) makes the track the closest thing to an anthem that Miller ever recorded. Two versions of “Inverness” are included here, a demo and a full-band rendition, and the Game Theory version features a bit less studio sheen than on the mix eventually released by Loud Family, showing that the final incarnation of Game Theory was apparently ready to flex a little more straightforward rock muscle.

For further proof of that, the album includes two songs that Miller co-wrote with Querico: The band blasts through “My Free Ride,” a power-pop rave-up that’s given the full production treatment, while a demo for “The Come On” is a psychedelic slice of acid pop that sounds a lot more like something by the Elephant 6 than any of the band’s other work. “Take Me Down (to Halloo),” an arch travelogue-cum-drug-song, is a little punchier than the version on Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things, while the cleverly titled “Go Back to Sleep, Little Susie” is much sharper and cynical than the song it became, “Aerodelieria.” “Laurel Canyon (Reprise)” is little more than a song fragment, eventually winding up on the band’s final album, Supercalifragile, which was released in 2017 after Miller’s widow Kristine Chambers Miller and Ken Stringfellow assembled it out of demos and piecemeal tracks Miller left behind.

In addition to the songs recorded by the nascent Loud Family, the collection packages several more covers and rarities. There’s a cover of Brian Eno’s “Needle in the Camel’s Eye” and the Monkees’s “The Door Into Summer,” both of which attest to Miller’s eclecticism. The album also features the band’s take on the Big Star classic “Back of a Car” during a live set at the Stanford radio station when Big Star was still wildly, unfairly obscure. Perhaps the most welcome inclusions here are two songs—“Treat It Like My Own” and “Water”—from a fan club-only release tape, a mini-musical called “A Child’s Christmas Saving the Whales.”

PostScript is lovingly packaged with an excellent essay by critic Annie Zaleski, as well as reminiscences by Pat Sansone, Doug Gillard, and Dan Vallor, who worked with Miller on a number of these tracks and elsewhere. Ultimately, the collection’s only real flaw is that it has limited appeal to those unfamiliar with Miller and Game Theory. It’s also not as strong a primer on Miller’s songcraft as Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things and the Game Theory collection Tinker to Evers to Chance. For the initiated, though, PostScript is an invitation to burrow deeply into the work of one of the great, unexplored cult figures of indie rock. Listening to these songs alongside the first Loud Family album gives listeners a look at what Game Theory might have become, and what separates Miller’s second project from his first. If that sounds a bit like a literature seminar, that’s probably the way Miller would have liked it.

 Label: Omnivore  Release Date: March 20, 2020  Buy: Amazon

Seth Wilson

Seth Wilson is a writer, editor, and theatre scholar/director living in Chicago. He is a former 12-time Jeopardy! champion and an avid Georgia Bulldogs fan.

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