Material Issue

Lesson #65: You need meat to bait your hooks

Strongest album: International Pop Overthrow
Weakest album: Destination Universe

When Material Issue's debut arrived in 1990, power pop fans nearly fell over themselves with drooling praise for this power trio from Chicago. In retrospect, the praise was excessive, due in large part to the fact that at the time there weren't a whole lot of bands performing the Brit Invasion style pop these boys offered. Lead singer/guitarist Jim Ellison possessed a knack for catchy choruses and sing-along melodic lines, certainly, but his songs were basically pastiches of classic AM-pop that offered little you haven't already heard before. Material Issue had the moves down cold, but they lacked one important ingredient: content. It resulted in music that rocked but often never took hold, and once you switched the record off, what you heard didn't stick in your head the way it's supposed to. By-the-numbers pure pop that didn't have the magic that pure pop is supposed to have. In their defense, Ellison & Co. do provide a pleasant time since nothing they did was ever less than professional, and if you're in the mood there are certainly worse power pop bands out there; at least you can hum along to all of the Issue's ditties, and dance to quite a few of them. Because of their formulaic approach, Material Issue are best appreciated in small doses, such as a song or three at a time; over the course of an entire album, hearing rewrite upon rewrite of "She's Goin' Thru' My Head" can grow wearying. Sadly, Material Issue will never get a chance to prove they were more than quintessentially slight popsters. In 1996, Jim Ellison committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning in his garage.

There are two major fan sites for Material Issue. Material Issue claims that they were "the best power-pop band ever".... (as if Big Star and Cheap Trick never existed)! The Official Unofficial Material Issue Page offers a slightly more sober evaluation of these Chicago boys' talents (I hope).

International Pop Overthrow (1991) ***1/2

Proceeding from early Cheap Trick and "The Kids Are Alright"-era Who, Material Issue issue their own jangly-punchy additions to the form. "Valerie Loves Me" is classic, a bitter-melancholy swipe/lust ode to a girl who rejected him but now he's rejecting her. "Diane" is driving, catchy, and formulaic, and the second best song, slightly misogynist/girl-worshipping in classic power pop style. "Renee Remains The Same" is no "Walk Away Renee", its obvious model, but a fair midtempo ballad with an irresistible chorus all the same. "This Letter" hints at the desperation that would lead Ellison to suicide, though the song itself sounds like typical teen angst. Ellison would rewrite "Crazy" for his entire career. The anti-grunge title track is overdue, and "Very Good Idea" and "Out Right Now" are catchy and rockin'. The rest is undistinct. So what you get is basically a 50/50 split between cool and bland, and sadly this album's the pinnacle of Material Issue's career.

Destination Universe (1992) **1/2

You buy this album for one track, Material Issue's one bonafide hit: "What Girls Want". It's a fun song, with great little smartass lyrics ("Lips like Mick Jagger, Rod Stewart's hair, and Keith Richard's stagger"), and as far as the album goes, that's about it. Nothing else comes close to that single's invention or excitement. It's cute the way Ellison lifts Edison Lighthouse's "Love Grows Where My Rosemary Grows" for the next song, but such self-conscious plagiarism only underscores how derivative and empty Material Issue's music sounds. Knocking off chorus after chorus of catchy material, Ellison fails to write a single song that rises above the formulaic sameness. It seems as through he's trying to rewrite "Crazy" for half the songs, which doesn't help the monotony factor (which is very high). Dull and uninspired, Material Issue prove on this album that having a good formula doesn't keep you from sounding formulaic.

Freak City Soundtrack (1994) ***

A slight comeback, Material Issue streamline their sound for a tight, '70s hard-rock influenced approach. This makes their songs all sound kinda samey, and cuts down on their idiosyncrasies, but the songwriting itself is pretty distinctive. I miss the jangle that propelled songs like "Valerie Loves Me", and it's all more than a bit dry. But "Goin' Through Your Purse" possesses atypically sharp lyrics, and the cover of "Kim The Waitress" by some obscure outfit is apt (anybody who's heard of those guys, please e-mail me and fill me in on who they are and whether they're any good). Ellison recycles some tunes from Material Issue's first EP (released 1987), which may indicate some creative drought, but they're pretty good songs nonetheless. "I Could Use You" might pass as a classic '70s soft rock ballad (not an insult). It's neat the way he stretches out "Evil Kneivel" to rhyme, too. In short, all the songs are pretty good (or pretty okay, whichever), but it's pretty boring to listen to the whole thing all the way through. Empty and derivative, and fun and catchy - now how are you going to reconcile that?

"Kim the Waitress" is by Green Pajamas, a Seattle jangle band c late 80s. I remember Jim getting that single and playing it on my turntable (the original version is really long, at least 6 min.) and just going "wow" over and over.

Telecommando Americano (1998)

Material Issue's fourth album, which wasn't fully completed at the time of Jim Ellison's death, has been released posthumously.

Reader Comments

Jim Ellison was the person I was going to marry but he died before i could propose

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