Vinyl/CD Review: Game Theory – Lolita Nation

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One of my favorite movies is As Good As It Gets, the 1997 romantic comedy/drama with Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt. It’s a great movie for a lot of reasons, and every time I watch it I notice something else fantastic about it. But one part that always stuck with me is the scene where Jack’s character, having thoroughly pissed off Helen Hunt on yet another occasion, is ordered by Hunt to pay her a compliment to keep her from walking out on him. Flustered and desperate, Jack launches into a somewhat rambling story about how, after she told him off a few nights prior, he finally listened his doctor’s orders and began taking some anti-depressants to help curtail his more unpleasant behaviors. His rationale, he explained, is that she made him want to be a better man. Hunt’s character is visibly taken aback, and declares it to be the best compliment she ever received.

I bring this up because the first time I listened to Game Theory’s Lolita Nation, it blew my mind in such a way that I began to seek out more music, expand my tastes and read as much as criticism as possible.  It’s so good that it made me want to be a better writer so I would do a better job of describing what at the time I felt to be its impossible-to-define brilliance.

I don’t know if I’m there yet, but now’s the time to try, as the album is finally back in print thanks to the remarkable efforts of Omnivore Recordings, who have brought the album back to store shelves in both a deluxe 2CD package and a beautiful colored 2LP release as well.

Lolita Nation is Game Theory’s fourth full-length album and was originally released back in 1987, light years ahead of its time. In fact, Lolita Nation is so far ahead of its time that I don’t even know if its time has come yet. Many bands have cited Game Theory as a heavy influence on their music, including The New Pornographers, Matthew Sweet and Ted Leo, but none of them have really come close to the sound the band laid to wax with Lolita Nation. Sure, they may ape the jangle-pop sound of Game Theory’s earlier recordings or the more straight-forward but still interesting sound of their final LP Two Steps from the Middle Ages, but this album remains untouchable, a bizarre and wondrous amalgamation of 80s college rock, power-pop, classic rock, avant-garde experiments and even some synth-pop. It runs the gamut.

Sprawling is a word I often see when reading about Lolita Nation, but I feel as if that’s misleading. Sprawling suggests a lack of focus, or a somewhat messy affair. This album is far from those things. If anything, Lolita Nation is a shockingly tight record, especially for a album that’s over seventy four minutes long (which is was crazy long in 1987 standards). Many tracks are just barely over a minute, some hover around 30 seconds, but none feel like unfinished ideas or curious fragments left in as filler.

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They work because the album is sequenced perfectly. It’s the Heat of indie-rock albums, long, but still tight and perfectly paced. Isolated pop tracks are often bookended or interrupted by instrumental and experimental tangents the give the album a dreamlike quality. The quiet and beautiful “Andy In 10 Years” is followed by three tracks of near-instrumental noise before the album slides back into the pop format to deliver the hauntingly beautiful “Mammoth Gardens.” The snippets and experiments never feel like self-indulgent wankery or navel-gazing, instead they craft a one-of-a-kind, timeless journey, like you’re shifting the radio dial and sliding into college radio stations from alternate realities.

The occasional excursions into audio collage are fascinating, but what really makes Lolita Nation an album to remember are the more properly formed tracks, largely due to Scott Miller’s self-proclaimed whiny voice (as well as the occasional vocals of guitarist Donnette Thayer). Miller’s vocals may be grating to some, and while he certainly lacked in the power department, his delivery is crystal clear, which is absolutely necessary as it allows the listener to make out the album’s impossibly oblique and literary lyrics. I’d be a damned liar if I knew what half of the songs on Lolita Nation are about outside of the most vaguest themes. But for every pop culture reference and obscure metaphor that flies over your head, enough hit for you to understand the overall meaning of each track, which all work together to craft an overall mood that lies somewhere between elation and melancholy.

“Mammoth Gardens” is no doubt a bittersweet love song looking back at happier times, while “One More For Saint Michael” is a vindictive ode to…something, with its vitriolic lyrics and bitter references to Star Trek. And while I can’t tell the overall meaning of the shoegazey and sedate “Dripping With Looks,” I know that the title lyric remains one of the sexiest and most beautiful compliments I’ve ever heard in a song, no matter how abstract the lyrics surrounding it. And then there’s “We Love You Carol And Allison.” The meaning of this song will eternally be lost on me. I’ve read the lyrics and I still can’t decipher it. But I don’t know if I want to. I love the feeling it imparts on me, despite the fact that I can’t describe that feeling even to myself. Much like the album’s musical texture, the lyrics of Lolita Nation succeed in broad strokes.

If this release was just the original album released as it was in 1987, it would be enough to warrant a purchase, but Omnivore Recordings have gone above and beyond the line of duty with this release. Firstly, the album has finally received a much overdue remaster. The original master of Lolita Nation was quiet and so high in treble that it sounded downright brittle at times, but that’s been resolved here. The album has the oomph it deserves now, with an improved low end and enhanced clarity that give multi-textured tracks like “Dripping With Looks” and “The Real Shelia” new life.

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And then there’s the entire second disc of bonus tracks, opening with the original version of “Chardonnay,” which had to be trimmed by about three minutes in order to make the album fit on one CD. Now expanded back to its original running time of nearly eight minutes, reinvented as a power-pop epic, “Freebird” for the Big Star set. Rehearsal versions and demos fill up a good chunk of the disc as well, and while they’re interesting from a historical standpoint, the real highlight is the selection of live covers that are included. Game Theory is such an idiosyncratic and unique act that it’s hard to judge who exactly their influences were. But with these covers, which include fare as diverse as Iggy Pop’s “Gimme Danger,” Bowie’s “Drive-In Saturday,” “Love Will Tear Us Apart” by Joy Division” and The Hollies’ “Carrie Anne” we can see that Miller and company were grabbing from as many sources and sounds as possible to create their one-of-a-kind sound.

In addition to the deluxe CD re-issue, there’s a great 2LP edition as well, which includes the entire album spread across both records, with the included download code featuring the album proper as well as the bonus cuts. The vinyl is cut on a semi-transparent dark-green wax, and it looks absolutely stunning. It also plays wonderfully as well, it’s the fantastic pressing the album so rightfully deserved.

I’ve been writing about music for about 18 years now. I’ve heard a lot of horrible albums get popular and born witness to countless great records fall through the cracks. Lolita Nation fell through the cracks when it first came out in 1987, and thanks to legal snafus and record label bullshit, it stayed buried in the cracks ever since. But now it’s been uncovered for the world to hear once more. And it must be heard. Some say that Lolita Nation isn’t the best jumping on point for Game Theory, thanks to its complex nature. But take the chance. Simply put, Lolita Nation is one of the greatest albums of all time. It’s continued obscurity is one of the greatest crimes ever to hit the musical landscape.

Listen to it today and give it the much belated justice it so rightfully deserves.

One Response to Vinyl/CD Review: Game Theory – Lolita Nation

  • SimonH says:

    It is a great reissue – prompted me to email Omnivore to tell them! Enjoyed reading your thoughts on this unique album.

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