There’s plenty of reasons why, while other underground 80s bands have been getting their dues, Game Theory forever remains a cult classic – they never had a classic album. Lolita Nation, their go-to album, is impregnable; a great deal of great songs obscured by its and bits giving it such a ramshackle appearance that makes Big Star’s Third / Sister Lovers – an obvious inspiration – seem normal. The Big Shot Chronicles, probably their second best album, ain’t perfect either.
But it definitely comes close at times. To wit, “Here It Is Tomorrow” and “Erica’s Word” deserve any superlatives I can think of – they kick ass, as the kids say. Newcomer keyboardist Shelley Lafrenier sings backing vocals during the chorus of the former, and her more powerful voice offer a great juxtaposition with Scott Miller’s self-described “miserable whine,” and they’ll have you wishing she sang more (she’ll do that on Lolita Nation, but not here). “Erica’s Word” is even more accomplished, if you can believe it – the closest thing they have to a hit (apparently, it was played on college radio and even found its way on MTV’s 120 Minutes). Listen to the way Miller lets his voice slide to wherever they’ll go, climbing higher for “Erica’s gone shy” or “Twelve years ago” or teasing out extra syllables that he can to make other phrases stand out, “Girl, are you leaving something you might later ne-e-eed?” he asks, as if standing in the middle of the road and watching Erica leave him. The chorus doesn’t use such tricks because it doesn’t need to, and frankly if you’re not singing along to lines like “Erica’s word, taking me clear and leaving me blurred / Knocking me down from second to third,” it’s either because you’re allergic to ear candy or you’ve felt the emotion and are left speechless. The guitar work is great too, linking the excellent verses with the excellent choruses whereas a lot of bands wouldn’t have bothered with the transitions, not to mention the guitar solo that jangle pops and power pops by way of “A Hard Day’s Night.” And people who hate handclaps are probably less than people who hate recycling.
Those are the album’s most affecting tunes, and I’m sorry to say there’s only one other song that comes close (I’ll get to it later). “Where You Going Northern” is a good slice of jangle pop (with a great use of falsetto in the outro) and I’ll definitely keep “Make Any Vows” for its chorus, but I’m aware that it doesn’t offer much anything else. I quite like the fuzzed out melody that comes in periodically during “I’ve Tried Subtlety” (the first time under Miller’s “The Regency Hotel”) and it has a decent enough hook, but both are too minute of details to justify the length of the longest song of the album (the only one clocking over 4 minutes). The only other number that I can do without is “Never Mind,” and the band’s rather clumsy rhythm section can’t really push a heavy song forward, so it just kind of lurches. The rest of the album’s songs are the type that are easy to go down but hard remembering afterwards. “Regenisraen,” closing out the first side, is a decent attempt at a folk number that only serves to remind you that Scott Miller’s prowess wasn’t writing sad songs – it was at writing sad songs under the guise of happy tunes without careful analysis.
I mean, have you really listened (/read along) to these songs? Sure, they’re often vague – often really vague – but you’re never going to find more creative rhymes like “Quick judger, long time begrudger,” “Efficacious, B-follows-A-cious,” or “Erica’s gone shy / Some unknown X behind the Y,” anywhere. And when Scott Miller – an American – sings, “You’ve got me drinking in Canadian bars,” you know that breakup’s really got him down. Which brings me to the album’s third best song: closer “Like a Girl Jesus.” The song’s only six lines, but when “Brightness as pure as December sunshine” opens the thing, you know you’re in for a treat. And while it starts like it’ll turn out to be a(n unremarkable) ballad, Scott Miller finally teases out a melody (the way he sings the title’s words or the closing mantra are sure to linger in your head after everything’s said and done) while both the keyboardist and drummer tosses out random sounds that eventually materialize in the song’s closing minute, where they give a hopeful backdrop to Miller’s mantra that “She’s doing fine,” despite the fact that, “Like a girl Jesus, she’s undefined.”
The 1993 reissue comes with five tracks, and none of them are essential, but none of them are bad. Actually, “Faithful” – the unsurprising best of the bunch since the only non-instrumental led by an electric guitar instead of an acoustic – could’ve easily replaced “Never Mind”; it’s hard not to get lost in nostalgia as soon as “Linus and Lucy” begins (they would cover this), even though it’s nowhere near the original (obviously); and the outro of “Seattle” is frankly more affecting than the whole of “Regenisraen.”