The Big Shot Chronicles The following is an installment of a music column, Record Resurrection, in which I try to restore an overlooked, discredited, or forgotten record.

Record Resurrection: “The Big Shot Chronicles” by Game Theory

LABEL Rational Records 73210
PRODUCED BY Mitch Easter
RELEASED 1986
MUSICIANS Scott Miller (guitar, vocals); Shelley La Freniere (keyboards); Gil Ray (drums); Suzi Ziegler (bass).
TRACKS Side One: Here It Is Tomorrow * Where You Going Northern * I’ve Tried Subtlety * Erica’s Word * Make Any Vows * Regenisraen
Side Two: Crash Into June * Book Of Millionaires * The Only Lesson Learned * Too Closely * Never Mind * Like A Girl Jesus

The late 80’s is not generally considered a great time for music. Would anybody count Whitesnake’s A Slip of the Tongue among their favorite LPs? Genesis’ Invisible Touch anyone? The Lady in Red soundtrack? And yet 1986 spawned Game Theory’s The Big Shot Chronicles – an album of strange impressionistic sculptures. Led by Scott Miller’s inquisitive voice — a wet-sounding instrument whose predilection to swerve into high notes is an incredibly charming habit – Game Theory was a literate pop band, not so much an art band as a smart band. From 1981 through 1988, they put out six records. The Big Shot Chronicles was number two.

If you’ve never heard of this band, it’s not surprising. The record got some college radio play and was coveted for a time by the secret society of pop music lovers – an exclusive set, composed of people who make a big distinction between rock and pop. They take offense if you confuse the terms. They think they’ve cornered the market on harmony.

There were a couple of reasons Game Theory was not a popular band: bad production and bad hair. But these are easy explanations, and the real reasons probably lie deeper and are less obvious. Possibly the record is just a bit too personal, a little too individual. Maybe Miller’s voice is too high and strange. And maybe all the other usual reasons of timing, promotion, distribution, management, and band dynamics that determine the reception and success of an album.

Among those who know this record, poor production is a standard complaint. But it’s a complaint that could be leveled at almost any album recorded in the 1980’s, and it’s one I don’t much care for, as it seems to establish the whole decade as defective. Looking back, we think it could have been a whole lot cooler. But it just so happens that it wasn’t.

In any decade, recording principles, technologies, and their results tend to reflect the surrounding climate. In the 80’s the sounds were, in general, thin and distant. The cheap cold sounds of the 80’s are expressive, as though no one were interested in creating anything deep or lasting. Remember: they were preparing us for today.

But for those who can’t get beyond the production, I offer this piece of advice: do what you’d do for any dear friend – overlook his faults and respond to his heart. And if you can’t do that, listen with headphones, it gathers the sound.

The album opens with a track called Here it is Tomorrow. It’s a fast song that my guess is the band thought ‘rocked.’ The truth is, Game Theory never quite rocked. The synthesizer seems to insure this, as does the tenor of Miller’s voice. They’re a pop band – which is nothing to hold against them. The bass acts as counterpoint to the vocal line, and there are quirky subtly-blended harmonies. The lead vocal seems to be answering itself, and the song ends in phase-shifted guitars.

The second track, Where You Going Northern, is lush-sounding, underpinned by tinkling acoustic guitars, like mandolins or water. The chords slide into place and the flutey keyboards mirror the vocal.

I’ve Tried Subtlety
tells the story of an outdoor rock show, and has one of the worst drum sounds in memory. As accommodating as the production of the previous track is, Subtlety gets lost. Mitch Easter, the producer, seems not to know what to do with drums, because whenever they appear, the track gets cluttered. Yet it’s a beautiful song, the heart of the album. It has one of Miller’s characteristic verses – melodically varied before the chorus has even shown up.

On Erica’s Word, the drums echo in triplets with a beat reminiscent of The Go Go’s. It’s a jumping jack track. The guitar solo is something Nick Lowe could’ve come up with, and perhaps did.

Make Any Vows is a crowded-sounding frenetic track. It has metal-tinged guitars and remorseful-sounding background oh’s. The melodic line ends on a characteristic reach to a throw-away high note – no point is being made, nothing show-offy, just another piece of the melody.

Side One is a beautiful act of creation — like a time-elapsed film of a flower, blooming and gently closing back down. It ends in an acoustic song, with REMish strummed-up guitar and the vocals in a modified round. At song’s end, Flock of Seagulls keyboards hover over the vocal like ghosts. It’s title, Regenisraen, a dipthong!! is, I think it’s safe to say, a pop first.

Side Two opens with Crash into June. The keyboards sound like an accordion, there are bells and echoed hammer-on guitar flourishes. A buried second guitar part actually sounds a lot like a real guitar.

The second track, Book of Millionaires, is a moody song with a deliberate walking pace and arpeggiated guitar. It features a Come Sail Away keyboard solo, a beautiful strummed under-guitar part, and a de-tuned ending.

The Only Lesson Learned is a happy-sounding song that, owing to the drum pattern, feels as though it’s ever-anticipating itself. Miller runs up and down the melody, utilizing the scale. The hollow metal sheath sound of the guitar on the solo is strictly 80’s.

Too Closely is a break-up song, featuring a meaty treble guitar sound offset by the weightless reedy-sounding keyboards, as though LaFreniere is depressing doves. There is a glorious ascension of the guitar line that accompanies Miller’s change and climax to the song – the words Matthew, Mark, and John – in speaking of all who’ve abandoned him.

Like a Girl Jesus closes the album. The ethereal vocal seems to keep getting higher and higher, lighter and lighter, and a guitar chord is depressed and descends as though losing pressure. Here the band uses pre-recorded tape to an apocalyptic end, and there is the sense that all that’s missing is Miller’s last gasp for air.

I’ve heard Scott Miller is re-recording the songs at Aimee Mann’s behest – acoustically– a move that, though I love the songs and would wish for them a larger audience and greater acclaim, I’m against. I’m against it because I’m against all revision from the standpoint of maturity. Of course he’d be trying to make the songs better. But part of what’s to love about the record, part of what’s to love about any record, is the particular spirit that accompanied it, the ideas, the mistakes, the character of the time –not what he thinks about it now.

The Big Shot Chronicles is a friend. It is an ephemeral pleasure. Just in case that’s the only kind there is, listen.

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One Response to “Music”

  1. Suzi Ziegler Says:

    Priscilla, Thank you for taking a close listen and sharing your thoughts with others. I believe you are spot on!

    Here’s wishing you and yours every happiness in 2009!

    My best,
    Suzi Ziegler


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