Friday, June 9, 2017

Game Theory - 2 Steps From the Middle Ages (1988/2017, Omnivore) - A brief overview

What is it about a long-running band's final record?  Sure, Led Zeppelin's In Through the Out Door was undoubtedly heaved upon thousands of shipping pallets in 1979, but posthumously it was hardly revered.  The Replacements swan song, All Shook Down is a phenomenal collection of thoughtful, inspired songs, yet even some die-hard Mats aficionados regard it merely as Paul Westerberg's first solo LP.  And Guided By Voices intended "last" album, 2004's Half Smiles of the Decomposed was the least talked about LP in their elephantine canon.  Believe it or not, this brings us to Game Theory's parting shot, 1988's 2 Steps From the Middle AgesIt was the the late Scott Miller helmed collective's fifth record. and is being commemorated with a bonus-ized reissue nearly three decades after the fact.  By no stretch did it meet a quiet reception upon it's arrival that year, enjoying myriad critical plaudits, success on gobs of left-of-the dial frequencies, and even some startlingly unlikely appreciation from C.C. DeVille of GT's Enigma label-mates Poison.  But in the grand scheme of things 2 Steps is just about the least discussed and seemingly least remembered item in the band's impressive arsenal - and for no conspicuous reason I might add. 

Granted, this album fell on the heels of the sprawling, ambitious and occasionally obtuse Lolita Nation.  That double platter set was often mistook for a concept piece, but misconceptions aside Game Theory had poured virtually every bit of creative juice into that project - maybe so much so that anything else they would dispense in the future would be regarded as an afterthought.  But 2 Steps, while considerably more conventional (particularly in it's presentation) bore songs that were every bit as rich and affecting as those residing on Lolita and The Big Shot Chronicles.  Scott Miller and Co's trajectory began with 1982's slyly esoteric Blaze of Glory, a collegiate level pastiche of power pop-cum-art rock, and with every successive Game Theory release the band inched towards a more streamlined modus operandi while managing to refrain from encroaching into the soon to be constipated bowels of pandering alt-rock.  In essence, 2 Steps not only strikes me as advanced for it's era, but sounds fresh and bold even when gauged by a twenty-first century measuring stick.  Miller's cocktail of verbose text and brisk, melodic song structures ascends to a new apex on "Rolling With the City Girls," "You Drive" and "Throwing the Election."  Even when mining a less euphoric vein ("Leilani" and 'Wyoming") Game Theory bring A-grade material to the table, leaving me all the more bewildered as to why this record is so rarely mentioned in the same breath as Lolita... and Real Nighttime.

As with previous installments in Omnivore Records Game Theory reissue campaign, 2 Steps is nicely padded with a trove of supplemental material.  Rather than taking the typical approach of drawing from one contiguous concert or demo reel, the eleven bonus cuts here are culled from a multitude of sources.  One of the most revealing curios is a radio session take of Let's Active's "Bad Machinery."  Not a terribly coincidental pick, considering Game Theory's association with Let's Active's Mitch Easter.  Early stabs at "Wyoming" and "Room for One More, Honey" are a treat, as are live versions of GT staples "The Waist and the Knees" and "Sleeping Through Heaven."  You can find the expanded reissue of 2 Steps From the Middle Ages at or Amazon and iTunes.

PS: I'd be remiss if I neglected to mention the passing of Game Theory drummer Gil Ray earlier this year.


Professor K said...

Outstanding. It's been in my collection since its release; I appreciate a fresh reflection from a fellow long-term fan.

M-----l said...

I picked this up at my local this afternoon, but wouldn't have thought to look for it if it hadn't been for this post. Thanks for the heads-up.

Eric said...

I have been a Scott Miller devotee since my earliest college days in - you guessed it - the late eighties. My thoughts on why Miller's work was always confined to a niche following (albeit, a niche which includes countless other musicians and songwriters whose work has gone platinum) are that his richly nuanced and - occasionally - deeply profound lyrics elude the appreciation of the casual listener. When I became a Game Theory fan was the moment that I first heard GT's "Erica's Word". My earliest recollections were not of Miller's magnificent lyrics, but of his super-infectious ear-worm pop-hooks. I had always hoped that Miller's brilliance as a tunesmith would attract the masses as it for me.

I was just listening to Omnivore's vinyl LP re-release of 2 STEPS FROM THE MIDDLE AGES, and began to reflect on the often overlooked brilliance of GT's final album. The album, sadly, sometimes gets lost in the shadow of LOLITA NATION and REAL NIGHTTIME - although it is REAL NIGHTTIME which is the most analogous to 2 STEPS in all of GT's releases.

BTW - I feel compelled to point out that the actual title of one of your cited tracks (and a favorite of mine) is "Rolling with the Moody Girls" - not "City". Sorry to be so pedantic, but I am usually grateful when someone lets me know about inaccuracies in my posts. Great review of the album!