In this era of EDM and songwriting-by-committee (not that there’s anything wrong with that – is there?), there’s still something about a couple of guys armed with little but guitars, harmonies, and their own imaginations, driven to create a joyful noise. In this era when radio is dominated by music that can’t be duplicated onstage without benefit of technology, there’s something about the thought of musicians just plugging in and getting back-to-basics.
Omnivore Recordings is at the vanguard of keeping the flame of power pop alive – the genre whose name was coined by Pete Townshend in the late 1960s to describe “what the Small Faces used to play, and the kind of pop The Beach Boys played in the days of ‘Fun, Fun, Fun.’” Power pop, then and now, is all about bold, bright, melodic, guitar-driven nuggets that you just can’t get out of your head. The Omnivore team has lavishly expanded two home-recorded debut albums that stand among the best, most creative, and most exuberant of the genre: Game Theory’s 1982 Blaze of Glory and The Posies’ 1988 Failure.
Power pop, however, doesn’t strictly define Blaze of Glory (Omnivore OVCD-96). The album, recorded in singer-songwriter-frontman Scott Miller’s bedroom at his parents’ house, could wear any number of tags as well: D.I.Y. rock, college rock, alternative rock. Miller formed Game Theory out of the ashes of Alternate Learning, his college band based in Sacramento and Davis, California. Alternate Learning had released an EP in 1979 and an LP in 1981 before disbanding early in 1982 and paving the way for Game Theory. Miller created his new band with Alternate Learning alumna Nancy Becker (keyboards/vocals), Fred Juhos (bass/guitar/vocals) and Michael Irwin (drums). It’s telling that Miller once roomed at school with Steve Wynn, who formed The Dream Syndicate in 1981 and became a leading light of the Paisley Underground sound; Wynn contributes to the liner notes of Omnivore’s reissue, recalling how he introduced Miller to power pop legends Big Star. It turns out that Miller wasn’t influenced by Alex Chilton and company (though “he took to the band on one listen,” per Wynn), but rather by The Beatles, Pink Floyd and Elvis Costello. All of those influences seeped into Game Theory, albeit with a heavy sheen of new wave, rendered in lo-fi style with prominent keyboards and guitars.
There’s certainly a dose of early Costello-esque acidity; on the raggedly primitive “Tin Scarecrow” (a lyrical Wizard of Oz amalgam), Miller wryly sneers, “Now you’re the way of the vacuum/Another human being’s freedom in the suck bag,” followed by appropriate sound effects! There’s a marked Beatles feel in the vocals and the arrangement of “The Young Drug,” despite its proclamation that “The future’s black and blue…it’s not 1962!” But if “The Young Drug” sounds a bit like what Andy Partridge was concocting with XTC at roughly the same time, Game Theory more closely resembles Devo on the full-throttle new wave attack of “White Blues.”
“Date with an Angel” shows Miller’s rapidly-evolving songcraft, via both the dynamics of its melody and its lyrical rebuffing of love-song conventions. “All I Want is Everything,” a frenetic post-punk rocker that lasts just slightly more than a minute, has Miller in biting mode: “She destroys me because she loves me/It’s like a wire around my neck/It’s making me a nervous wreck/I push away but still I cling/All I want from her is everything.” Yet he’s still attracted to the object of his affection and ire. Ditto on “Stupid Heart,” with Miller vocally recalling John Lennon in his vocals over a thumping blues-rock beat and insisting, “You could make suicide so easy…” Sonically, it’s one of the trippiest compositions here and the closest to explaining Pink Floyd as a part of the DNA of Game Theory! The more relaxed “You Give Me Chills” also finds the singer confronting a girl who makes him “so afraid” with typical ambivalence: “I don’t want to/still I stay.” The style and sound may be different, but Miller’s barbed lyrical musings on love follow a line that can be drawn all the way back to the Tin Pan Alley of yore.
One of the pleasures of Blaze of Glory is its stylistic variety within the D.I.Y. context. A martial beat drives “Mary Magdalene” (“’Cause sometimes I feel just like Mary Magdalene…Lord, this must be the blues”). Its Kafka reference befits the college-rock tag, but not nearly so much as “Bad Day at UCLA,” naturally. The song is presented on Omnivore’s reissue in three distinctive recordings: the persuasive original, a charmingly rough live version, and a brief reprise. Miller’s youth isn’t specifically addressed often in his songs on Blaze, but he supplies an evocative set of soul-searching lyrics for “Sleeping Through Heaven” which drip with post-collegiate angst but also with cleverness and sharp observation.
There’s much more after the jump!
Omnivore’s reissue represents the first time the original 1982 audio has been re-presented; a 1993 reissue had substantial portions re-recorded and/or re-mixed by Scott Miller. That alone would be enticement to pick this edition, splendidly remastered by Gavin Lurssen and Reuben Cohen, up. But producers Pat Thomas, Dan Vallor and Cheryl Pawelski have considerably sweetened the pot with fifteen bonus tracks – yes, that’s three more tracks than on the original album! Including tracks from Miller solo and with Alternate Learning, as well as live recordings, this material will be manna for Game Theory fans and collectors alike. A stuffed 24-page booklet rounds out a wholly exceptional package.
A few years later, in 1988, another band in the power pop tradition made its debut with a similarly home-recorded effort that has stood the test of time. The Bellingham, Washington-based Posies, a.k.a. Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow, titled their first record Failure (Omnivore OVCD-93) – but the name was certainly an ironic one! The singers and multi-instrumentalists recorded Failure in Auer’s home on an eight-track machine, but turned out a surprisingly polished gem. Auer and Stringfellow’s compact arrangements and clean, unfussy production added up to a crisp, vibrant sound that couldn’t have been more different than the nascent grunge sounds also emanating from Washington.
Upon the release of Failure, comparisons abounded to The Hollies, not to the familiar British Invasion signpost of The Beatles – clearly, something was different about The Posies. The track “I May Hate You Sometimes,” one of the best songs Clarke, Hicks and Nash never wrote, most vividly drives this point home, but Stringfellow once asserted, “We thought we were ripping off Elvis Costello, Squeeze and XTC, because that’s what we were listening to!” Whether The Posies were trying to emulate the Manchester band or not, the end result was the same kind of thrilling, harmony-driven pop. That Auer and Stringfellow also appreciated The Who and The Move likely also accounted for the driving muscularity of their music together. (“I May Hate You Sometimes” was enshrined on the Rhino box set Children of Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the Second Psychedelic Era, 1976-1995, further solidifying its place in the pop pantheon.) On the wry, “The Longest Line,” all that’s missing are the British accents as it veers from a pretty, languid gait to a rockabilly-by-way-of-The-Beatles rhythm. The acerbic “Like Me Too” channels a John Lennon-esque spirit, and “Uncombined” is gleefully withering: “Love is senseless as any other sense/It’s a dangerous missile from which/There’s no defense/You can’t understand it ’cause you don’t have the mind/You’re better off uncombined!”
Failure echoes classic Brit-inspired pop-rock, yes, but also R.E.M., XTC, the dBs, and other groups of a more recent vintage. And then there’s the slight matter of Big Star, the group that Auer and Stringfellow would join in 1993. On Failure, the electric leads are worthy of Big Star precursor The Byrds; also similar to the Alex Chilton-fronted cult band is The Posies’ mastery of both electric and acoustic textures on the album. The jangly opener “Blind Eyes Open,” propelled by thumping, primitive drums, soon-to-be-trademark harmonies and slightly mannered vocals, rocks with a Chris Bell-esque intensity veering on punk.
While Failure is certainly an embryonic record, with catchy melodies occasionally married to overwritten lyrics, even those lyrics show an interest in wordplay and better-than-average concepts (see the whimsically-titled “Ironing Tuesdays”) bolstered by sheer energy, exuberance and a clear grasp of pop dynamics. The precocious “At Least for Now” shimmers with an accomplished, shimmering, radio-friendly sound showing just how advanced these ostensible recording amateurs were. (An instrumental demo is this reissue’s lone previously unissued offering among its eight bonus tracks, but it’s a worthwhile one.)
There’s a bounce to the garage rock of “Paint Me,” with its intriguingly formal lyrics: “Paint me lifeless grey/For I have lost a friend today/ To desperate selfishness/And so I will regress/To something more disturbing.” The repeatedly plunked piano recalls “Getting Better,” but the rawer demo in the bonus material is even better and brighter. Some sentiments sound strange given the 17-year age of the artists, but The Posies would grow into their style with their more ambitious subsequent releases.
For this reissue produced by The Posies and Cheryl Pawelski, Failure has been expanded with eight bonus tracks including a number of instrumentals and demo recordings, most from the 15th anniversary edition of the album from 2004. (It should be noted, however, that all of the bonuses from that edition have not been repeated here, so collectors should hold onto it.) The 8-page booklet features notes from Auer and Stringfellow plus period clippings and other interesting ephemera.
For alternative eighties sounds with a retro flavor, both Blaze of Glory and Failure can’t be beat. Both are available now from Omnivore Recordings.