Album Reviews: A Final Word from Game Theory, Plus Matt Wilson, David Nail, Eliza Gilkyson, Lisa Mills

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Game Theory’s eight original albums, which were reissued with bonus tracks between 2014 and 2017, leave little doubt that this was one of the smartest and most underrated indie-rock groups of the 1980s. If you need more proof, though, you’ll have it shortly, via an unexpected bonus to the catalog: Across the Barrier of Sound: Postscript. The forthcoming CD* collects 24 previously unavailable concert, home, and studio recordings by the California band’s 1988-89 final lineup, which incorporated several changes, most notably the addition of Michael Quercio of the then recently disbanded paisley underground band the Three O’Clock. The extensive liner notes include tributes from members of Wilco and Guided by Voices.

Game Theory’s leader, the late Scott Miller, wrote most of the material here, but Quercio contributes a few tracks, and there are also covers of songs by such progenitors as Todd Rundgren (“Forget All About It”), Brian Eno (“Needle in the Camel’s Eye”), Alex Chilton (Big Star’s “Back of a Car”), and Lennon/McCartney (a partly a cappella “All My Loving”). 

It’s true that only four of the tracks here represent finished studio recordings; but that fact belies the excellence of this album that wasn’t supposed to be an album: like the group’s original LPs, it’s loaded with gorgeous vocals and melodies and great hooks. The inventive performances, which recall acts ranging from Big Star to the Undertones, are such ear candy that you’ll wonder how they could possibly have sat in the vaults for three decades.

MORE NOTEWORTHY RELEASES

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Matt Wilson & His Orchestra, When I Was a WriterMinneapolis-based Matt Wilson, who sounds redolent of Zombies vocalist Colin Blunstone, is best known as the singer and songwriter for the 1990s rock band Trip Shakespeare. He debuts a new lineup on the upcoming*, self-penned When I Was a Writer, where his so-called “orchestra” includes a banjo player, a harpist, an electric bassist, and his own acoustic guitar and piano. 

Most of the 10 compositions are as moody and introspective as the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds or anything from Nick Drake. However, there are also flashes of humor and lightness in the consistently engaging music and lyrics of such standouts as “Come to Nothing,” “Mental Patients,” and the title cut.

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David Nail, Oh, Mother. David Nail made his mark as a country artist—he has scored multiple top 10 albums and singles in that genre—but this first solo project since 2016 finds him heading off in a different direction. His new music is more akin to pop and folk, and the songs are more personal. There are only four of them on this well-produced EP—three actually, since the last track is an alternate piano version of the title cut—but every one packs an emotional wallop.

The haunting “Oh, Mother,” which Nail wrote, tackles mental illness: the protagonist, apparently talking on the phone, assures his mother that, “Yeah, I’m fine, better than I’ve been,” but adds that he’s battling “the demons I just can’t outrun” and that there “ain’t no one else to blame if I don’t make it out [of] this storm.” The EP’s other two songs—“Forgiveness,” which Nail cowrote, and “La Cienega Just Smiled,” a Ryan Adams cover—are equally melancholy and poignant. The album is consistently melodic, evocative, and passionately sung—and more than enough to whet your appetite for the full-length CD that is reportedly coming later in the year. 

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Eliza Gilkyson, 2020. You won’t have to guess which political party veteran folk singer/songwriter Eliza Gilkyson will be voting for in November after listening to her appropriately titled latest album*. The record echoes the spirit of classic topical folk songs and features covers of two of them: Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” and Bob Dylan’s apocalyptic “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” 

Gilkyson’s original and cowritten material includes “One More Day,” which addresses climate change; and “My Heart Aches,” in which she sings that “we marched…from a Mississippi bridge to the Ferguson trial…and all we were saying was give peace a chance.” Another highlight is “Beach Haven,” which weds her music to lyrics drawn from a letter Woody Guthrie wrote in 1952 to Beach Haven Apartments landlord Fred Trump (father of you-know-who) regarding his racist rental policies. 

Though Gilkyson often limns dark themes in such numbers, her lyrics, melodies, and affecting vocals also convey optimism and beauty. This CD is a call to action that manages to communicate at least as much hope as sadness.

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Lisa Mills, The Triangle. The title of soul/blues singer Lisa Mills’s latest album refers to the triangle represented by Memphis, Muscle Shoals, and Jackson, Mississippi. The songs here include 1960s and 1970s classics—plus a few noteworthy obscurities—that issued from these cities, and some of them feature musicians who played on the originals. 

The sandpapery voiced Mills sings her heart out on the 14-song set, which includes covers of Clarence Carter’s “Slip Away,” Etta James’s “I’d Rather Go Blind,” and Otis Redding’s “That’s How Strong My Love Is.” Also here: “Just Walking in the Rain,” the Johnny Ray hit that the doowop group the Prisonaires first recorded for Sun in 1953; and “Greenwood, Mississippi,” which Little Richard originally waxed. Many of these covers are just as gripping as the great period hits from the Stax and Volt labels, which is saying plenty.

*Note: The Game Theory and Matt Wilson albums are due out March 20, while Eliza Gilkyson's CD will be released April 10. The records by David Nail and Lisa Mills are available now.

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Jeff Burger (byjeffburger.com), a longtime magazine editor, has written about music, politics, and popular culture for more than 75 periodicals. His books include Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters, Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches…

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