On record: Game Theory – Lolita Nation reissue (Omnivore Recordings)

game-theory

Richard Whitehouse writes about the long-awaited re-release of a landmark album.

2016 is unlikely to see any more significant reissue than this. For two decades, Lolita Nation has been more talked about than heard – an album which bridged the perceived divide between power pop and college rock, transcending genres for one of the seminal albums of the decade.

How did it come about?

By 1987, Game Theory was a seasoned outfit whose two previous releases – the edgy pop of Real Nighttime and the versatile rock of The Big Shot Chronicles – paved the way for what its leader Scott Miller intended to be both an ambitious summation and reckless leap in the dark. At nearly 75 minutes and spread over two LPs, Lolita Nation was that most unfashionable of 1980s prospects: a concept album as varied as Physical Graffiti and as single-minded as The Wall – with the ‘devil may care’ attitude of The White Album thrown in for good measure. A panoply of songs interspersed with concrete and electronic music, it is best heard as being in four parts – reflecting, despite having appearing at an early peak of the CD era, an allegiance to the LP format: one whose giddying diversity never detracts from its underlying cohesion.

What’s the music like?

Part One is launched with the splintered reportage of Kenneth – What’s The Frequency?, a preamble into the heady surge of Not Because You Can; the pause for breath of Shard and limpidity of Go Ahead You’re Dying To cancelled out by the combative squall of Dripping With Looks then assuaged by the jauntiness of Exactly What We Don’t Want to Hear. With its tensile mashing of keyboards and guitars over off-kilter percussion, We Love You Carol and Alison is a highlight, as also the near-descent into anarchy of The Waist and the Knees.

Part Two eases in with the stately opulence of Nothing New, a likely candidate for Miller’s greatest song – to which the barbed nonchalance of The World’s Easiest Job is an admirable foil. Guitarist Donnette Thayer’s Look Away engagingly verges on Survivor territory, then Slip injects a welcome measure of skedaddling humour before two of the album’s defining songs – the pertness and poignancy of The Real Sheila, another of this band’s ‘hit singles’ in a parallel universe, and the pathos of Andy in Ten Years with its poised world-weariness.

Part Three kicks in with the layered collage of Watch Who You’re Calling Space Garbage Meteor Mouth – Pretty Green Card Shark, proceeding via the incisive workout of drummer Gil Ray’s Where They Have To Let You In and breathlessness of Turn Me On Dead Man to the inviting singalong of Thayer’s Mammoth Gardens. This slams into the glinting irony of Little Ivory, before the mock-drama of Museum of Hopelessness and the shimmering, ethereal Toby Ornette, from the pen of keyboardist Shelley LaFreniere, makes way for the free-form montage of track 22, whose incredibly lengthy title does not bear repeating here! This does not pre-empt the impact of One More For Saint Michael, with its drily sardonic manner and Star Trek allusion, or keyboard-driven fizz of Choose Between Two Sons that rounds off this most unpredictable sequence.

Part Four reverts to first principles with three of Miller’s choicest cuts – thus the irresistible sassiness of Chardonnay, then the ambivalence of Last Day That We’re Young distils the essence of an album which plays out to the wistful elegance of Together Now, Very Minor.

What’s with the second disc?

Its double-album length has necessitated this second disc of sundry tracks which Omnivore has used productively – kicking off with the legendary full-length version of Chardonnay, transformed from the lacklustre bootleg on You-tube. That said, the album version is much superior in context – the narrative as it unfolds over the original’s six verses not quite sharp enough, nor the instrumental backing sufficiently varied, to sustain this song’s duration as Miller conceived it: excision of its almost unaccompanied final verse is the only real loss.

Dripping with Looks is heard in a tentative rough mix, while One More For Saint Michael appears both as an engagingly ragged live version and as in an almost fully realized (i.e. not so rough) mix. The Waist and the Knees similarly evolved between its solo rehearsal demo (with an aborted Pink Floyd intro) and rough mix complete in almost all essentials, and if the rough mix of Andy in Ten Years sounds a little too sluggish for its pathos fully to register, the band rehearsal demo of ‘Little Ivory’ has a glinting irony in advance of the finished cut.

Of the radio sessions, We Love You Carol and Alison works fine as a solo number, as does Together Now, Very Minor. Miller’s versatility comes over in a vividly barbed take on Elvis Costello’s Tiny Steps and almost too musical rendition of Iggy Pop’s Gimme Danger. His eloquence in The SmithsThese Things Take Time will delight those partial to Morrissey’s lyrics if not his voice, and a memory lapse in the Sex PistolsGod Save the Queen points up this cover’s verve as surely as do any passing over-emphases in David Bowie’s Drive-In Saturday.

Live covers feature a pertly ambivalent take on The HolliesCarrie Ann, together with one on Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart whose uncannily authentic instrumental backing highlights the mismatch with Miller’s vocal. If desultory versions of Bowie’s Candidate and Jonathan Richman’s Roadrunner are of little import, the stark sarcasm of Public Image Ltd’s Public Image triumphs over the sub-fuse sound. The test demo of Miller’s Choose between Two Sons, of which only the title made it onto the album, duly makes for a touching epitaph.

Is it recommended?

This is an impressive resurrection of an album which will hopefully secure a wider and more responsive audience today. The remastered sound retains all the clarity but not the brittleness of its original release, with CD presentation in keeping with Omnivore’s high standards – not least a lavishly illustrated booklet which includes detailed reminiscences from band members and friends.

Whether or not Lolita Nation is Miller’s greatest achievement, it is assuredly his most all-encompassing and its return to active service could not be more timely or welcome.

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