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Game Theory - Two Steps from the Middle Ages (Omnivore Recordings)

Album cover for 2 Steps From the Middle Ages by Game Theory.
11 June 2017
June 9th brought us the final, excellent reissue from the Game Theory catalog, an album produced by the venerable Mitch Easter that originally came out in 1988. It showed the band at the height of their creative powers, and one has to ponder why it ended when Two Steps was one of the band’s most commercially successful records. But in Game Theory canon, it’s not an album that’s mentioned often. This reissue contains the original 13 tunes plus 11 bonus tracks that range from unvarnished album demos to live performances and even a cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “America”. The translucent-orange first pressing of the LP (on vinyl for the first time since its initial release) contains a download card for the entire CD/Digital release. The thick booklet includes rare and previously unseen photos from the band’s photographer, Robert Toren, as well as essays by Easter, Ken Stringfellow (The Posies, Big Star), and Franklin Bruno (The Village Voice, Salon, The Human Hearts). Sadly, the band’s drummer, Gil Ray, whose generous contribution to the Game Theory reissue series has been immeasurable and who consulted through the creation of this title, passed away earlier this year. The release is lovingly dedicated to him.

So it’s on to the music, which is hard for me to write about, knowing that two members of this great band are no longer with us. And this feeling of melancholy is pervasive, as it also resides within the tracks, complex and beautiful as they are. Knowing that Scott Miller was depressed, maybe chronically so, lends a whole different air to this collection. I listen to the opening drum salvo of “Room For One More, Honey”, and it really underscores what an important asset Gil Ray was to the overall sound. It has that new wave feel contributed by Shelley LaFreniere’s confident keyboard playing, and there is that ever present acoustic edge contributed by Easter’s great production work. The way that Scott and Donnette Thayer emote here hurts, as their voices twine together so easily, even as their personal relationship was unraveling. Perhaps this explains the dissolution of the group and its transmogrification to the equally compelling Loud Family. “What the Whole World Wants” is another gem of a tune, with one of Scott’s catchiest hooks at its core. “The Picture of Agreeability” is an odd ditty with Scott playing and singing everything. “Amelia, Have You Lost” has some tasty guitar licks and recaptures some of the magic from the group’s earlier releases. “Rolling With the Moody Girls” bears that trademark Mitch Easter sound, with solidly placed percussion and guitar and keyboards sparkling through the mix. There is even a saxophone at one point. In hindsight, this is easily one of the album’s strongest tracks, with a captivating melody and some fine singing.

“Wyoming” follows suit, with a wicked cool drum sound and is just terrific and ‘should have been a hit’. In listening to the lyrics, it seems like the title refers to a person, or the state of a relationship. Despite the somewhat sprightly melody, this doesn’t resonate in a happy way. “You Drive” reprises a melodic idea from an earlier record, but it’s sent up in grand fashion here with some excellent guitar playing and a hook that never leaves you. Brilliant! “Leilani” has a plethora of pop culture references and is another keeper. It moves slower in waltz time and it suits the group well. “Wish I Could Stand or Have” has lovely 12 string acoustic and heartbreaking lyrics. Its brevity does not dispel its desperation. “Throwing The Election” has a proggy feel due to the organ, before it jumps forward into a gorgeous tune with pointed lyrics. I played this after Trump unfairly won the election (by hook or by crook, who knows?) and this couldn’t be more prescient, even as it describes other elements.

“Initiations Week” is a tad collegiate, and once again features only “ Miller. It’s sarcastic and ultimately sad. Of the bonus tracks, I like the stripped back feel of the “Amelia, Have You Lost (Demo)” which has some prominent guitar playing. Sometimes that is overshadowed by keyboard washes, so it’s nice to hear it stand out. “Bad Machinery (Radio Session)” is a terrific Let’s Active cover. Just listen to the original to see what I mean. Miller inhabits a similar vocal space with Easter, both of whom can throw down a ‘miserable whine’ with the best of them. The live version of Lolita Nation’s “The Waist and the Knees” is tough and aggressive, showing a different side to the group in a live setting. I’m a big fan of Real Nighttime, so hearing a different version of ““I Turned Her Away (Radio Session)” is a treat. In summary, Omnivore has done another outstanding job of reissuing this underappreciated record and it’s worth it for the 13 tracks alone along with the commentary from people who have worked with Scott. The extra tracks are an added dollop to an already satisfying release. Recommended for all Let’s Active, Game Theory, and Loud Family fans, as well as for anyone who appreciates intelligent, well constructed indie rock.