Game Theory

2 Steps from the Middle Ages

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Arriving in 1987, Lolita Nation was Game Theory's masterpiece, a strikingly ambitious and accomplished exercise in power pop at its smartest. But it was also a purposely difficult double album, and it did little to boost the group's somewhat precarious career status. For Game Theory's fifth LP, group leader and songwriter Scott Miller set out to make something more user-friendly, and 1988's 2 Steps from the Middle Ages reflected a more streamlined approach, stripping away some of the more baroque elements from the tunes, abandoning the aural montage that had become a major part of the group's approach, and delivering a relatively concise 13-song set. There was also a bit more gloss in Mitch Easter's production than in his previous work with the band, and tunes like "Wyoming," "In a Delorean," "Rolling with the Moody Girls," and "What the Whole World Wants" sound like they could have found a comfortable spot on college radio, if not mainstream FM outlets. However, 2 Steps manages to play like a compromise in the best sense of the world -- it's a far easier album for a beginner to slip into than Lolita Nation or Real Nighttime, but it still boasts plenty of superb songs from Miller, and the band carries this material with impressive strength, especially Gil Ray's drumming and Shelley LaFreniere's keyboards. And on the second half of the album, Miller lets his dour, literate personality shine bright on "Don't Entertain Me Twice," "Throwing the Election," and "Initiations Week," which rank with his best songs. 2 Steps from the Middle Ages proved to be Game Theory's final album, and it's hard not to wish they'd allowed their grand finale to flaunt the group's eccentricities. But think of it as their answer to the Velvet Underground's Loaded, a superb example of a challenging band playing nice without throwing away the smarts and ideas that made them worthwhile.

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