Scott Miller is one of the ultimate cult figures in rock and roll: He was a musical genius of undeniable talent that deserved more recognition than he received in his lifetime. In fact, he once jokingly referred to his cultishly admired power pop band Game Theory as reaching “national obscurity, as opposed to regional obscurity.”
Aside from R.E.M., Game Theory was the best American guitar band of the entire 1980s, with Miller’s witty, cerebral lyrics and knack for crafting perfect pop hooks setting them apart from many of their peers.
The band’s finest work, 1986’s The Big Shot Chronicles was reissued this week by Omnivore Recordings, who have been slowly returning the band’s albums to print.
On the record, singer-guitarist Miller is joined by keyboardist Shelley LaFreniere, bassist Suzi Zeigler and drummer Gil Ray, a lineup came together while the band was touring their second album Real Nighttime. While Miller was the group’s only constant, the members that passed in and out of Game Theory were just as integral to its sonic direction and left a considerable mark on its output.
The Big Shot Chronicles showcases Miller and his band at the height of their artistic powers, with Miller’s wistful vocal delivery at the forefront. In a bid of self-aggrandizement, he once described his singing voice a “miserable whine,” but that’s an incredibly uncharitable description. Instead, his tenor vocals come off as wonderfully emotional throughout the record, and he often recalls Big Star’s Alex Chilton.
The record’s opener “Here It Is Tomorrow” has a more of a raucous new wave feel than the rest of the album. In particular, its buzzing guitar solo serves as a reminder that even though the band were unparalleled power pop geniuses, they had tremendous range that went beyond that label.
That song is followed by “Where You Going Northern,” which is full of bittersweet lyrics that skate along on LaFreniere’s gentle keyboards and Miller’s chiming guitar lines. Several other songs on the record, like “Too Closely” and “Crash Into June,” follow a variation of that same basic formula but the album never gets repetitive. Miller and his bandmates often found different ways to approach classic power pop and jangle pop tropes, and always came up with something different each time.
There’s a few songs on the album that are noticeably different from the group’s regular modus operandi, such as “Regenisraen,” a lush piece of acoustic jangle pop with a sparse arrangement that highlights lyrics that are a rush of eclectic imagery.
On the other side of the coin, there’s “I’ve Tried Subtlety” which is loaded Big Star-style guitar jabs. Its urgent instrumentation punctuates Miller’s witty stanzas about student angst and disenfranchisement (“gifted children link your arms in rhyme/better make this world while it still gives you time” goes one couplet).
The record’s best known song, “Erica’s Word,” is a perfect power pop gem with a brilliant melody and is punctuated by a monster hook on the chorus. The song’s lyrics are some of the best in Miller’s entire career and are filled with fantastically constructed imagery. After all, not many post-breakup songs begin with something as cerebral and incredibly thoughtful as “Erica’s gone shy/some unknown X behind the Y.”
“Erica’s Word” is one of the great lost pop singles of the 1980s; A true “love-at-first-listen” song that deserved to be as huge as R.E.M.’s “The One I Love” or The Smithereens’ “A Girl Like You.”
It’s a shame that The Big Shot Chronicles didn’t get its due when it was released in 1986. Instead it became – like a lot of great power pop record of its day – a cult item celebrated by a fervent fan base that grew whenever “Erica’s Word” got a spin on 120 Minutes or college radio.
Shortly before the album was released, bassist Suzi Zeigler was replaced by Guillaume Gassuan, and the band expanded to a five piece with the recruitment of guitarist Donnette Thayer. This lineup would stick together for two more brilliant albums but Game Theory called it a day in 1990. Miller formed a new band, The Loud Family, in 1991.
By the time of Miller’s death in 2013, the entire Game Theory discography had been out of print of years. In 2014, Omnivore Recordings began to reissue the band’s albums, to the delight of the group’s devoted following (many of whom can be found on a Facebook group that can trace its roots to a mailing list).
The new reissue of The Big Shot Chronicles adds rarities, demos and live cuts. Among these is a dynamite cover of Todd Rundgren’s “Couldn’t I Just Tell You” and a “rough” mix of “Erica’s Word” that highlights the song’s backing vocals and chiming guitars. There’s also an interesting curio in the band’s solid, down-tempo cover of “Seattle,” the theme tune to the terrible ‘70s Old West sitcom Here Come the Brides.
Omnivore’s reissue campaign has given Game Theory’s discography a long overdue signal boost and a chance for future generations to easily access Miller’s lyrical and musical genius.
Out of all the albums in Game Theory’s near-perfect discography, The Big Shot Chronicles stands as the best introduction to the band, Scott Miller’s brilliant songwriting and the musicians he surrounded himself with. The album has aged wonderfully and packs as much punch as it did in 1986. For fans of power pop or alternative rock in general, it is not a record to be slept on.