Reviewed on this page:
International Pop Overthrow - Destination Universe - Freak City Soundtrack - Telecommando Americano
A shamelessly retro power-pop trio from the American heartland, Chicago's Material Issue was the vehicle for singer/guitarist/songwriter Jim Ellison.
One of the few first-rate, highly commercial rock bands with any kind of artistic self-respect that got anywhere in the 90s, their catalog is stuffed with quality tunes.
Ellison was an astounding control freak: his writing, production, and guitar playing is meticulous, and he seems to aim for a radio hit on every track.
That leaves him with a sound so consistent and conventional it's like Wonder Bread: he constantly reuses generic power chords and distortion, hardly ever veers from the power-trio format, rarely employs outside players, writes obsessively and directly about conventional romantic themes, and reaches over and over again for the same arsenal of dated rock flourishes: wah-wah pedals, gratingly fake British enunciation, drummer Mike Zelenko's insistent twist beats, and bassist Ted Ansani's Beatles-style tenor harmonies.
None of this relates at all to 90s indy rock - it's much more in the style of New Jersey's slightly earlier Smithereens. But it is fun, and remarkably well-crafted. Ellison has got to stand as one of the most heart-breakingly sensitive love-song writers of his time - you can easily hear the bleak, sincere heartbreak undergirding every line, no matter how clichéd.
It's not a coincidence that Ellison committed suicide in 1996.
And his ear for catchy throw-away hooks is remarkable; I can't think of any rock writer working in the 90s who made this kind of thing seem so effortless.
Even if you have trouble telling them apart, his tunes almost always grab your attention.
After several years of working the Chicago club scene and releasing one EP, Ellison landed a major label contract and attracted national attention with the band's fine debut album.
Unfortunately, they quickly got stuck in an artistic rut and couldn't connect with any the contemporary fads - they're nothing like grunge, indy rock, or Britpop, and rock in general was losing ground in the early 90s to everything from hip-hop to country.
The Posies, the closest thing to them at the time, had the same problems.
So it's predictable but pathetic that Mercury dropped them after just three records, with Ellison putting one last album in the can but not seeing it through to release.
As far as I can tell, there's only
one legitimate Material Issue fan
site on the web. Ted Ansani also runs his own web site. (JA)
Ted Ansani (bass, backing vocals), Jim Ellison (lead vocals, guitar), Mike Zelenko (drums).
International Pop Overthrow (1991)
The group's first record paints them as something of a sell-out: Ellison affects a British accent, pumps up every tune with power chords and pentatonic riffs, avoids any instrumental experimentation or distracting production gimmickry, and serves up a solid diet of angsty teen romance lyrics.
A few clever harmonies, Ansani's melodic bass lines, Ellison's heartfelt
tenor, and a lot of dynamics make up for the generic, Beatles-based guitar-pop sound, with its clangy, echoey drums and mail-order guitar distortion (the sure-fire hit "Valerie Loves Me"; "Renee Remains The Same"; "This Far Before").
It's all so upbeat that it's easy to miss the profound despair hiding
just a millimeter behind Ellison's facade. One song after another drags
up the worst side of relationships, running through all the usual
stages: lust, obsession, betrayal and bitter breakup. The farthest he
gets from this is an amazingly bleak story of revenge ("Trouble") and a
sneering, entirely facetious rock industry anthem (the annoying title
track). Nonetheless, both the rockers ("Diane"; "Chance Of A Lifetime," which first appeared on their 1987 EP)
and the ballads ("A Very Good Idea") are tuneful and extraordinarily
crafted, just a couple tunes veer into bathos ("This Letter"), and the
lyrics really set it apart.
Co-produced by the band and Jeff Murphy. (JA)
Destination Universe (1992)
A typical example of sophomore slump, with Ellison recycling all of his crafty formulas, but with weaker song material (title track, almost a rewrite of "International Pop Overthrow").
Lyrically, he never veers from his first-person broken-heart confessions.
However, his downright scary "Ballad Of A Lonely Man" is a transparent suicide meditation (despite the popping country-rock beat), and a couple tunes have playful images (the sarcastic "What Girls Want," with a wailing wah-wah line).
He also manages two snappy, riffy mid-tempo love songs ("When I Get This Way (Over You)," with phased vocals and dreamy harmonies; the Merseybeat anthem "Who Needs Love"), plus some touching power-pop ballads (the gorgeous, thoroughly Big Star-like "Everything"; "Next Big Thing," practically a Byrds homage; "Girl From Out Of This World").
But he's downright cheesy on the Cheap Trick recreation "The Loneliest Heart," and despite all the hummable choruses, the second half is smothered by a series of cookie-cutter tunes ("So Easy To Love Somebody"; "Don't You Think I Know"; "Whole Lotta You"; "If Ever You Should Fall").
Oddly, despite the unevenness the band chose not to resurrect any of their late 80s standards - which they did do on the next album.
Murphy again co-produces and engineers. (JA)
Material Issue, Freak City Soundtrack (1994)
It's hard to believe that a record this solid was intended as a mere
soundtrack. Sure, Ellison's lyrical bag of tricks seems a bit depleted;
some of the love songs like "Help Me Land" almost sound like they were
improvised, and two tracks are re-recorded.
But "Goin' Through Your Purse" is so emotionally fucked up
it's frightening, and Ellison's usual romantic neuroses are as chilling
as ever ("I Could Use You"). And musically, it's a step up:
new producer Mike Chapman's sound is more authentic and a little more
varied, with touches like a string quartet ("The Fan") and slide guitar
("Funny Feeling"). "EKO Beach" borders on punk, and "I Could Use You" is
so lush, jangly, and melodic that it's eerily like a late-60s Beatles love song. As you'd expect, there's also
a ton of brilliantly arranged power-pop tunes like "Ordinary Girl," the
Cheap Trick-like "Help Me Land," and most memorably "She's Goin' Through My Head" (along with "A Very Good Thing," recycled from their hard-to-find 1987 EP).
Meanwhile, "Kim The Waitress" has a huge hook and a memorable melody (the
only cover they ever did on an album, it's credited to Jeff Kelly of the Green Pajamas), and on the
louder rockers Ellison gets a huge, snarling tone out of his guitar
("One Simple Word"). Another slab of tuneful, energetic, old-fashioned rock.
Several "name" guests this time, including Guns N' Roses
guitarist Gilbey Clarke. (JA)
Telecommando Americano (1997)
Ellison had committed suicide after recording a full album's worth of new material, so the rest of the band polished up the basic tracks and got Rykodisc to release them in a compilation that includes their solid, but unenlightening six-song 1987 debut EP.
The new stuff is slightly more lethargic and more gimmicky than usual - Ellison not only over-emphasizes his usual snappy hooks, accessibly topical lyrics, and anthemic refrains, but salts the mixes on the best tunes with aural similes.
So he doubles the main riffs on the geeky "Young American Freak" and the twisting "2 Steps" with annoyingly tuned synth lines, runs a beeping phone sound all through the wah-wah drenched "Off The Hook," and leads in to "Satellite" with a half-minute of sci-fi effects.
This kind of thing gets downright annoying on "976-Love," where he comes up with a childish mock-Hammond organ part, and on the plodding, Hollies-like love song "London Girl," where he again puts on a British accent.
Elsewhere his power-pop riffery just seems formulaic ("You Were Beautiful"; "Head Shop").
Still, though, the entertainment quotient is high: "What If I Killed Your Boyfriend" lives up to its misanthropic title, the
semi-acoustic, slide-guitar augmented ballad "Carousel" is sweet, and
"Our Daughter" is a respectable, punk-flavored head-banger.
The EP features three marginally less slick versions of key tunes like "Chance Of A Lifetime" that they later re-recorded, plus a trio of respectable, but slightly weaker tunes they didn't ("Mary Spins A Rainbow"; "Color TV"; "Carol"). (JA)