Game Theory – Supercalifragile
The term “bittersweet” crosses my mind repeatedly when listening to this posthumous collection from Scott Miller. Miller, whose unusually heady brand of power pop was a reliable presence through the ’80s and ’90s as the mastermind behind Game Theory and later Loud Family, had become less prolific in his later years – his last release, 2006’s excellent What If It Works was essentially a split album with likeminded California outsider Anton Barbeau.
The lack of notoriety and remuneration increasingly grated on Miller, but he sustained enough of an intensely devoted fanbase to blow past a Kickstarter funding goal, not to mention having amassed an impressive list of artist admirers. Before his 2013 suicide Miller had already decided to return to the Game Theory moniker, and had picked a title – a textbook slice of his witty wordplay that was perhaps a bit too prescient. He’d enlisted the simpatico Ken Stringfellow (he of The Posies and the reconstituted Big Star, a clear Game Theory touchstone) as producer, and even sketched out a rough track sequencing. The tracks themselves were left in various stages of completion, however, bequeathing Stringfellow a much larger task than the typical producer.
A remarkably high percentage of Game Theory and Loud Family’s winding family trees returned to finish this labor of love. The decision to release Supercalifragile as Game Theory makes sense given the relatively straightforward pop vibe that most resembles The Big Shot Chronicles from the back catalog – particularly the new wave keyboard rush on the new “Valerie Tomorrow.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most memorable tracks tend to be ones Miller came closest to seeing through. The insistent opener “All You Need Is White” delivers precisely the type of frantic pop charge Miller liked to use as a kickoff. Soon after, “Time Warner” flexes Miller’s culture-savvy wordplay with references to “Elektra’s asylum,” John Cale and Joni Mitchell. Mark “An Overview of Item Response Theory” as his final entry in anthemic power pop masterworks, simultaneously indulging his love of math/science geekery. Mitch Easter, who was behind the board for many of both GT’s and LF’s finest moments, returns to finish the job on “Laurel Canyon,” a fully formed and fairly straightforward earworm – and also the sole tune that predates What if it Works.
Beyond these entries the line begins to blur between posthumous swansong and tribute album – Miller doesn’t appear on seven of the 15 tracks beyond writing co-credits. He had collaborated with Aimee Mann in real time, and the resulting “No Love” comes across as a true partnership. In most other cases admirers received Miller’s unfinished demos and saw them through, preserving his unmistakable gift for unique melodies.
Some of these pairings (Stringfellow and fellow Posie Jon Auer) seem perfectly logical; others (Ted Leo) are less so. Falling somewhere between are two of the highlights. Recurring Guided By Voices foil Doug Gillard brings home the jangle pop nugget “Say Goodbye,” which also features a tasty Peter Buck mandolin turn. And Okkervil River’s Will Sheff (who wrote an impressive eulogy for Miller soon after his passing) turns in a heartfelt performance on “Kristine” that might even be mistaken for Miller himself.
Anton Barbeau does the honors on the fitting closer “I Still Dream of Getting Back to Paris,” reeling in a reference to Rigel Five (from an early Game Theory “hit”) and a title cribbed from one of Miller’s last emails. While Supercalifragile lacks some of the precision and cohesion of the best Game Theory/Loud Family releases, it offers more than enough hooks, spirit and memories.