15. Game Theory, Two Steps from the Middle Ages
Like most of their contemporaries, the band Game Theory was headed towards the practically inevitable reunion. There were plans afoot to record a new album (the working title was Supercalifragile), which would have been the first release of new material by the band since 1988’s 2 Steps from the Middle Ages. The plan was demolished for the most tragic of reasons. Band leader Scott Miller died unexpectedly in the spring of 2013, at the age of 53.
Miller was one of those songwriters who never seemed to get the attention he deserved, either with Game Theory or with his later band, the Loud Family. He was the kind of creator that inspired fervent devotion from those who found intricate, intellectual magic in his songwriting, but was probably too complex to every find anything other than a cult audience. 2 Steps from the Middle Ages was something of a last stab at commercial success. As with their previous releases, the band worked with producer Mitch Easter, who had a gift for making college rock records that simultaneously handsomely polished and roughly hewn. It had been years since Easter had worked with R.E.M., but the crossover success the little ol’ band from Athens, Georgia was enjoying in the late-eighties heightened interest in their foundational efforts with Easter behind the boards. There were few other producers at the time who could generate positive attention with college rock fans just by signing his name to a project. On the sticker affixed to the front of the album, Easter’s name was prominently featured: “WEST MEETS EASTER (MITCH) FOR A TANTALIZING TASTE OF PROVOCATIVE POP.”
Miller was convinced he was making quality, enduring music, and 2 Steps from the Middle Ages is littered with songs that prove his belief. “Room for One More, Honey,” “Wyoming,” and “Throwing the Election” stand as prime examples. They were extending the brilliant, beautiful power pop once practiced by Big Star, roughing it up a little bit, just like the Replacements did, but building in a thrilling chewiness that demonstrated a beloved belief in the strength of fine songwriting. If Paul Westerberg always seemed reticent to put his heart and soul into the grooves without just enough of a disreputable indifference so he could plausibly call it all bullshit if things got too real, then Miller was his opposite in temperament. The Game Theory albums were urgent, unapologetic testimonies. 2 Steps from the Middle Ages has an even more pronounced version of this quality. It’s a dive off a cliff.
Unfortunately, it was a cliff dive into the shallowest of pools. There was no big splash for Game Theory, and the band effectively crumbled. Miller tried to replace his departing bandmates. There was some touring with the new line-up and enough time in the recording studio to provide some material to help fill out the collection Tinker to Evers to Chance. That was it for Game Theory. That was about to change. I’m not a excited proponent of reunions, but listening back to this material I must admit I land on a sad conclusion: it’s a shame that the silence was forced to endure.