Game Theory: Lolita Nation

Photo: Robert Toren

The most critically acclaimed masterpiece of the '80s that you’ve never heard finally sees re-release. Time having been kinder to this long lost album than the music industry, it remains fresh, exciting, and essential for any fan of good pop songwriting.

Game Theory

Lolita Nation

US Release: 2016-02-05
UK Release: 2016-02-05
Label: Omnivore

In the opening notes of this, Omnivore's fourth Game Theory re-release, Okkervil River's Will Sheff calls Lolita Nation "a sprawling work of self-sabotage". It's an intriguing perspective of an album that longtime fans consider the band's high water mark, an overlooked masterpiece of the 1980s American underground scene.

With its sonic experiments in song fragments and jarring shards of sound, Lolita Nation certainly shocked many fans who had grown accustomed to the band's softer, jangly side. Game Theory's previous record Big Shot Chronicles (which Omnivore has skipped in its release sequence due to delays in securing rights for some of the bonus disc material) had topped many college radio charts while highlighting bandleader Scott Miller's fey, yearning voice on songs like "Where You Going Northern?", "Regenesraen", and "Like a Girl Jesus". That album's songs fit comfortably into the burgeoning folk-rock scene while reflecting as well a neo-psychedelic vibe so prominent among the "paisley underground" artists with whom the band was associated. While Miller had shown a rougher edge on earlier songs like "Friend of the Family" or "Never Mind", most listeners understood Game Theory as a band that sounded pretty and expected more of the same.

They got Lolita Nation instead. Miller entered the project set on expanding the band's sonic palette by using the studio as an instrument itself. He found a sympathetic and willing partner in Mitch Easter, who had produced the previous two Game Theory records.

Lolita Nation, even skipping past the sound collages, deliberate noises, and song fragments to concentrate solely upon the fully-formed songs, is a LOUD album. Call them pretty and poppy all you want, Game Theory were moody as hell, and this album highlights their passionate, distorted, angry side. It takes a good seven cuts into the album before one hears anything resembling a jangle, and that comes via the bitter pill of "We Love You Carol and Allison", a pretty sounding song that contains some of Miller's most bitter lines ("With the smile and of the clique / Princess, in this context you're a freak"). This band could rattle the windows when they wanted to, and there are ample moments on Lolita Nation when they seem hell-bent on breaking some glass.

It's worth remembering that Lolita Nation features the third version proper of the to-that-time perpetually member-shifting band. The addition to the line-up of Guillaume Gassuan's more foregrounded bass playing brought a new heaviness to their sound, while new member Donnette Thayer's rhythm guitar playing freed Miller to shred a bit more in his guitar work, confident that the beat and melody would hold around him. Already established band members Gil Ray and Shelley LeFreniere, too, are stronger presences on this record. Ray's drumming, always sharp, provides the sometimes counter-intuitive yet cohesive beats that hold all of Miller's radical sonic ideas together.LaFreniere's frenetic "Toby Ornette" offers a bright, fitting interlude into the angular fragments that are to follow. Meanwhile, guest musician Angie Carlson's (Let's Active) unhinged, percussive playing on "World's Easiest Job" sounds as if Lucy Van Pelt had finally wrenched the piano away from that snobby lunkhead Schroeder to show him how to rock out.

Miller's songwriting on Lolita Nation amplifies, as well, his growth curve, ably mixing pop culture references with his angular wit and deep intelligence. There's anger, too, in Miller's words along with his playing on this album, which contributes to both its volume and disjointedness. Sheff refers to Miller's lyrics as "lashing out" and "wounded", apt descriptions. Miller's unrequited love songs delve deeper than the standard jilted male trope. The bile Miller occasionally spews would cross over into rank meanness or misogyny were it not for the fact that his self-deprecation and self-criticism runs even deeper and sharper. "Turning your friends against me," he sings at one point, "Man, that must be the world's easiest job." Or, later, in "One More for St. Michael", he quips "I know kids about three more goddam impressive than me." This is where Sheff's use of "wounded" is so prescient. Yes, Miller lashes out, but the whip always cracks back to slash the hand that wields it. In this way, Miller, perhaps, captures the internal emotional turmoil and psychological self-violence of the adolescent male better than any fellow songwriter of the '80s. It's sincere, sometimes ugly, often funny, and absolutely accurate.

But all is not jilted lovers. Miller's take on the music business, "Exactly What We Don't Want to Hear", encapsulated the 1980s' music scene in five devastating lines: "It's been a decade of record stores / Hordes of failing new wave careers / What lengths we're going to just to find / Exactly what we don't want to hear / With all our well-trained ears." Or, again, in "One More for St. Michael", Miller could be talking about his songwriting practice via a geeky Star Trek reference: "Captain Jim throws the prime directive out for the umpteenth time / It's habit for him now." And it is not until the album's end that we finally encounter that beautiful, keening, yearning voice that Miller had established on his previous records. "Together Now, Very Minor", a reflection on mortality and memory, loss, and persistence that ends with a typical Miller negation: all this deep thinking is just a ploy to lead us all on and "take it all away." Whatever it is is so indistinct as to be everything or maybe nothing of note. But Miller's voice, here, is at its most haunting, the end of the album as the end of time.

By the time Omnivore is done with these re-releases, fans will be able to compile a healthy covers album. The bonus discs of previous releases have already featured live or studio versions of Miller and band performing songs by R.E.M., Roxy Music, the Twinkies (with Donnie Jupiter guesting), and Queen. Lolita Nation's bonus disc features covers of David Bowie, PiL, Joy Division, Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, Elvis Costello, Iggy Pop, and the Sex Pistols. In collecting these for listeners, compiler Dan Vallor demonstrates another valuable service that Miller and his band provided in an era before the internet made it possible for anybody to become a music snob know-it-all in 20 clicks. For a significant number of kids growing up amidst the sprawling sameness of America's suburban shopping mall towns, it took artists like Miller (and Peter Buck of R.E.M. among others) to introduce fans to their influences or to other, like-minded bands. It's probably impossible to count how many people in the early '80s discovered Big Star and the Velvet Underground or got turned on to other worthwhile underground performers through the generosity of these musicians who were not afraid to share the spotlight.

Plain and simple, Lolita Nation deserves all its accolades and, with this re-release, should no longer be considered one of the lost masterpieces of the 1980s. Rather, it should be spoken of in any conversation that references Hüsker Dü's Zen Arcade and the Minutemen's Double Nickels on the Dime. Like those records, Lolita Nation is a sprawling, messy, and brilliant work that over-extends itself to capture its time, place, and scene in beautifully flawed perfection.

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