Game Theory – Across the Barrier of Sound

Game Theory’s run of hooky, heady and slightly off-kilter power pop extended from 1982-90, drawing the curtain with something that qualified as neither a bang nor a whimper. The quartet, which honed its attack using guitars and keyboards in equal measure, had always been a revolving cast of players centered on curly-haired savant Scott Miller. Following 1988’s 2 Steps from the Middle Ages (which peeled back some of the band’s quirkiness without sacrificing its personality), however, Miller upended the equation.

Game Theory’s final lineup enlisted Three O’Clock frontman and Paisley Underground poster boy Michael Quercio. It was either a dream team or a recipe for disaster, depending on one’s perspective. The two bands were quite simpatico musically – flying the flag for northern and southern California, respectively, The Three O’Clock’s more shimmering sound having found greater commercial appeal. But Miller had always been the show’s unquestioned star; could these egos co-exist?

Geographic distance and lack of a record contract ended the experiment before we got a chance to find out, but Across the Barrier of Sound: PostScript offers some long-overdue clues. The collection wraps up Omnivore Records’ reverent reissue campaign of Game Theory’s catalog. It’s hard to view as a fully realized album but rather – as its title plainly states – a postscript.

The hands-down highlight is “My Free Ride,” a studio-finished Miller/Quercio co-write that tickles all the endorphins one would hope from the pairing, down to Quercio’s lilting backing vocals. The only other shared credit, “The Come On,” is crunchier but nearly as high quality. The duo also does a fine job trading vocal leads on a Todd Rundgren cover (“Forget All About It”). Quercio was reportedly content to take a backseat role on bass.

The plurality of Across the Barrier of Sound, however, is comprised of early versions of songs Miller carried with him to anchor his successor band The Loud Family’s excellent 1993 debut Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things. It’s fascinating for fans to hear how these titles, already solid in their own right, evolved over the next three years – particularly how “Go Back to Sleep Little Susie” became “Aerodeliria.” It’s mainly an exercise for the already converted, however.

The generous 24-track set also offers breadcrumbs via covers of some clear forebears – Big Star, The Beatles, Brian Eno (Miller’s bedroom take on “Needle in the Camel’s Eye” is a through-line to The New Pornographers’ maximalism) and to a far lesser extent, The Monkees. A smattering of rougher home demos round out the set.

Across the Barrier of Sound: PostScript is hardly a starting point for Game Theory newbies (I recommend The Big Shot Chronicles for that purpose, then run don’t walk to Lolita Nation) but it’s a valuable addition to the late Miller’s rewarding discography.

Game Theory
Across the Barrier of Sound: PostScript