Resolved: Scott Miller, former coxswain of Game Theory and the Loud Family (and not to be confused with the talented tale-teller from the V-Roys), is the best American pop songwriter of the past twenty years, period. Of course, to engage in a proper debate, one must be familiar with Miller's work, and this recreational oddsmaker is willing to wager that the casual listener isn't. And that's where the trouble lies.
Critics are notorious for trotting out clichés involving justice when declaiming the commercial misfortunes that have vexed their neglected beloveds. However, even in the music industry's plutocratic dystopia, it's nearly inconceivable that Game Theory's landmark 1987 album, Lolita Nation -- imbued with a sonic adventurousness similar in spirit to Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot -- has been out of print since the dawn of the first inept Bush administration. While peers such as Elvis Costello enjoy their second round of reissues, Miller's gifts are left languishing.
With lyrics as coiled as his (recently cropped) coiffure, Miller epitomizes the art-pop modernist, drawing on sources ranging from James Joyce to the dB's and transmuting them into swarms of chords that may never leave you. Regardless of your mood, whether you're rollicking or wound-licking, his knack for making you feel alive and smart is nonpareil.
To help preserve Miller's legacy, 125 Records (named for the windfall one of its co-founders earned on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?) has released From Ritual to Romance, a taut and energetic set of live tracks taken from the Loud Family's 1996 and 1998 tours. One of the showstoppers is a cover of the Pixies' "Debaser," which Miller tweaks by tossing a tangle of references originally grafted to an early Loud Family tune, "He Do the Police in Different Voices" (itself the working title of T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land). Assembling a crescendo from lines culled from the Beatles, Tommy James, Alex Chilton and Television, the band erupts into Black Francis' gloriously absurd refrain, "I am un chien Andalusia!"
Recent reports suggest that Aimee Mann -- a longtime supporter who provides the liner notes for this album -- has successfully lured Miller out of early retirement to record an acoustic collection of his songs. Perhaps she's unearthed the blueprint for connecting intelligent songwriters with an audience hankering for music that challenges and invigorates. In the meantime, From Ritual to Romance serves as a lively introduction to the work of this misprized genius.