Across The Barrier of Sound reveals a new wrinkle in the pop genius of Scott Miller
Artist: Game Theory
Album: Across the Barrier of Sound: PostScript
Label: Omnivore Recordings
★★★1/2 (3.5/5 stars)
Late singer/songwriter Scott Miller never properly received the mainstream success he deserved.
But, for those in the know, he was the unsung hero of ‘80s and ‘90s intellectual power/jangle pop and rock. As the mastermind behind two top-notch bands—Game Theory and The Loud Family—Miller’s distinctive voice, songwriting, and musical style were as influential as they were enjoyable. (Just listen to the dazzlingly catchy and idiosyncratic “Last Honest Face” for proof.) Fortunately, his legacy carries on with the recent release of Across the Barrier of Sound: PostScript, an extensive compilation of material from 1990 – 1991 that features the final line-up. Although its mix of home and studio recordings are typically not as developed as they might’ve been, the LP is nonetheless a worthwhile glimpse into Miller’s process and potential that any fan should appreciate.
Across the Barrier of Sound: Postscript follows the June 2017 reissue of Game Theory’s last album, 1988’s Two Steps from The Middle Ages. Here, the quartet is comprised of Miller on guitar and vocals, Gil Ray (who’d previously been the drummer) on keyboard and guitar, Jozef Becker (who played with Miller in an earlier band, Alternate Learning, and the subsequent Loud Family) on drums, and Michael Quercio (of The Three O’Clock) on bass. Whereas the vinyl version only comes with the main fourteen songs, the CD release adds ten bonus tracks consisting of more originals and more covers. (There are also some lengthy and insightful write-ups and photographs included in the package, of course.) All in all, it truly feels like the final piece in the Scott Miller puzzle.
AUDIO: Game Theory “All My Loving”
Endearingly, the set begins with Miller’s barebones cover of The Beatles’ “All My Loving,” demonstrating his characteristically wispy singing and wiry guitar strums. Later, he applies a similar treatment to “Forget All About it” by The Nazz and “Needle In The Camel’s Eye” by Brian Eno. Both come with satisfying harmonies, back-up vocals, and ambitious guitarwork that complements their charmingly amateurish auras. Other standout inclusions include a more full-bodied version of “Idiot Son” and a more electronic home demo of “Jimmy Still Comes Around” (both from the first Loud Family record, 1993’s Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things). Elsewhere, “My Free Ride” is urgent and mesmeric; “Take Me Down (To Halloo)” is soothing and sunny; “Inverness” is wonderfully poignant and twangy; and “Back of a Car (Radio Session)”—a cover of the Big Star originally—becomes his own due to its folk rock DNA. For sure, there’s plenty here that testifies to why Miller was so special.
That said, not everything in the collection is equally pleasing and treasurable (especially for casual or fledgling fans). For instance, “The Second Grade Applauds (Home Demo)” is too rough around the edges to gratify beyond its historical merit; in contrast, “Treat It Like My Own” is established and produced sufficiently, but it’s not especially intriguing melodically. As for “Water (Remix),” it comes off more like a novel experiment in programmed beats and wavy repetition than anything else. A few other selections—such as “Even You (Home Demo),” “A Day in Erotica (Home Recording),” and “Laurel Canyon (Reprise) (Home Demo)”—expectedly feature only clean combinations of his singing and electric guitar sweeps; while that’s fine in theory (no pun intended), they’re not very engaging in terms of core songwriting, so there’s little there to latch onto.
Overall, however, Across the Barrier of Sound: PostScript is a valuable assemblage of DIY samples and advanced productions from one of the most singular voices of his generation. Sure, those unfamiliar with Miller’s catalog will only get so much out of it, but they’ll no doubt be at least intrigued to check out more once they hear it all. For those who know Game Theory and The Loud Family well, though, the sequence is naturally far more meaningful, making it a fine way to reward those who’ve been there all along while also honoring Miller’s memory once more.