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POP MUSIC REVIEW : Miller Dips a Toe in Stream of Consciousness

December 17, 1987|STEVE HOCHMAN

Sting likes to pepper his records with references to literary figures like Nabokov.

So does Scott Miller.

Sting's latest release is a sprawling, ambitious, challenging double album.

So is Scott Miller's.

But any similarity between the ex-Police-man and the leader of the San Francisco-based band Game Theory ends there. Sting and Miller (who brings Game Theory to the Music Machine tonight) are on opposite sides of the coin when it comes to being cerebral rockers.

Sting's approach to music seems born in frustration at pop music's limitations, leading him to bring in jazz players to carry out his lofty intentions. Miller, on the other hand, revels in pop's restrictions, excelling at the kind of smart American pop songs that put him in league with Alex Chilton or the dB's Peter Holsapple.

So when Miller wanted to capture the essence of James Joyce's writing style on record, he merely constructed a collage of snippets and oddities--rather than a big-scale conceptual production--to create the audio equivalent of a passage from "Finnegans Wake." And best of all, in classic pop fashion the whole thing only takes up about two minutes on vinyl--even the track's title (a long, virtually indecipherable bit of stream of consciousness) has a Joycean flavor.

"Had Joyce not been the sort of ultra-intellectual thing he was, 'Finnegans Wake' would have been a real fun book," Miller said during a recent phone interview from a Tucson rock club. "I think that's what his intent was."

Nonetheless, Miller hopes people will take his exercise seriously.

"I'd like it to be slowly apprehended in such a way that the real meaning can come together over time," he said. "I think (that style of writing) is such a marvelous mechanism for conveying what you'd call 'deep meaning.' "

And how did the folks at Enigma, Game Theory's record company, react to this approach, which though only a small part of the double album "Lolita Nation" is reflected in the fragments and sound collages that occur throughout the LP? After all, in these frugal times the very idea of a double album is usually greeted by executives with less than total enthusiasm. Only someone of the stature of Prince (or, of course, Sting) generally gets that kind of freedom.

"The double album did sort of meet with some resistance," Miller said. "I just thought of the double album as a way of getting a lot of these weird ideas I have on an album without getting too cramped.

"I sort of had to cut a deal with them," he explained. "I could release this gaudy, hostile album if next time I wrote 20 songs and they could pick which 10 to include. It probably won't come down to something that Machiavellian, but it'll probably come out more accessible, which is good."

Double album or no, Game Theory itself has evolved considerably since Sacramento-born Miller founded the group in 1982 while a student at UC Davis, where he palled around with the Dream Syndicate's Steve Wynn. After a few independent releases, the group--at that point essentially a one-man operation--hooked up with producer Mitch Easter for 1985's "Real Nighttime" album. Though that record garnered good reviews, it was limited to a fairly winsome brand of confessional pop and drew more notice for what one writer described as Miller's "miserable whine" than for anything else.

Now, though, the group is a full-time quintet able to generate quite a bit of power behind Miller's ever-widening talents.

"Every now and then I want a song to sound mean and threatening and we weren't able to do that," he said, contrasting the old band's limitations to the current lineup's abilities.

Though Miller has agreed to rein in the experiments for his next album, it doesn't mean he isn't dreaming of bigger things. "I'd do a feature film if I could, a bunch of grand stuff like that," he said, admiting to a few Sting-like ambitions.

"But," he sighed, "until we become megastars, we'll do what we can."

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