Material Issue/International Pop Overthrow (Mercury) 1991

As a subscriber to Musician magazine back in the day, I received a promotional cassette from the publication promoting a new band called Material Issue. The cassette was a mix of interview snippets and tracks from the Chicago band’s debut release. My first thought was “Why is Musician magazine sending me promotional cassettes?”

Turns out Material Issue was the first, and, as far as I know, only band that the magazine chose to actively promote in such a manner.

As I lived in Chicago at the time, I was already familiar with Material Issue. They’d been getting moderate airplay on the local alternative station, WXRT. Also, the band’s guitarist/singer Jim Ellison was an acquaintance of mine, having given my band our first Chicago area shows. We also had numerous mutual friends and were always bumping into each other.

Still, I must say that I greeted their first full-length release with some disdain….was it jealousy? No, you could not have paid me enough as an artist to sign to Mercury Records (they had actually tried to sign my band in 1989). It is my own opinion that this label has done almost as much as MCA in filling the cut-out bins of the world with complete crap and when they do sign a credible, likeable artist, they seem to go out of their way to kill any chance of commercial success.

Seriously, other than Def Leppard and John Cougar Mellencamp, what Mercury artist can you name that has enjoyed any success whatsoever?

Okay, back to my disdain.

At the time, there was just something about Chicago bands graduating to major label status that did not sit well with me. The ones getting signed were those that had admirably slugged it out for years on the local scene, but, by the time their first major label album came out, a strange transformation had taken place. In other words, the only way a Chicago band got signed was by completely selling out. Case-in-point: Enuff Z’nuff, a credible power pop band with heavy metal tendencies that had been plugging away on the suburban club scene for ages. When their Atlantic debut was released, though, they’d undergone a strange Haight-Ashbury/hair-metal makeover that left even longtime fans wondering WTF?! Sure, they were soon all over MTV and flirting with actual commercial success, but at what price? Heck, ask Chip Z’nuff the next time you see him. Get ready to duck, though.

So, what portion of their souls had Material Issue signed away, I wondered. So, with some dread, I popped in the cassette and, within seconds, realized that Jim Ellison, Ted Ansani, and Mike Zelenko had, indeed, stuck to their guns.

International Pop Overthrow is essentially a collection of demos the band had recorded over the previous year or so with noted local producer, Jeff Murphy (himself a member of the seminal power pop band Shoes). That the band had succeeded in not only getting signed from those demos, but that the label then allowed those demos to comprise the band’s first album was a huge victory.

From the opening salvo of “Valerie Loves Me”, the band is charging along in fine power pop fashion. Much like Cheap Trick’s debut album, Material Issue’s songs seem normal enough on first listen, but if you dig beneath the surface, you’ll soon see that things in (sole songwriter) Jim Ellison’s world are a bit left-of-center. “Valerie”, after all, isn’t your average boy-meets-girl love song:

“Valerie’s dancin’, on the room above my bed, you know
For all of the world below to see
Valerie’s leaving, in a car outside my house, you know
Such a shame she’s not with me and all the pretty things
And all the love my heart would bring
I would give my whole life to her…”

Poetic, yes…by the third verse, though:
“Valerie’s lonely, in an apartment down the street, you know
And her hair has turned so grey
But she’s so happy for the memories she has, you know
She can believe in the day when love was always on a string
And she could have had anything
But she will not ever have had me.”
This underlying thread of sadness is something that often exists within Jim’s best songs. Despite a propensity for songs with girls’ names in the title (“Diane”, “Renee Remains The Same”, “Li’l Christine” and the aforementioned “Valerie”), Ellison is better than just about anyone at accurately capturing the loneliness and longing experienced during those confusing adolescent years. And, still, his ability to understand the subtle nuances found within the early stages of a new relationship is quite endearing, as succinctly expressed in “Very First Lie”:

“I’d like to wake up with you early in the morning
Or stay up late just playing records on your phonograph
I’d like to get to know your mother and your father
Maybe just once pretend to be somebody’s better half
And I would like to tell the very first lie”
The title cut is perhaps the album’s lone song not dealing with boy-girl scenarios. Even so, it still manages to paint a vivid portrait of the restlessness of youth and what life on the road is like for a young rock band wanting to take over the world. Thus, is it not also a paean to love, albeit for the music that is their lifeblood?

Even though sadness and despair are an almost constant part of the equation, even when the band is rocking out with wild abandon (as on ” Material Issue’s first album is nothing if not a tale of innocence still fully intact despite life and love’s travails. Never has the social outcast, the kid who feels that no one understands them, had a better band in their corner.

Material Issue/Destination Universe (Mercury) 1992

Second albums are always a bit of a conundrum.

From the moment I started digging bands, I have always been amazed at the frequency of those who put out stellar debut efforts then release confounding follow-up efforts. Just off the top of my head, I am thinking Vapors’ “Magnets”, School Of Fish’s “Human Cannonball”, The Kings’ “Amazon Beach”, etc.
Most of you have never heard these records, I’m sure. That, of course, is my point. They, and the bands that released them, soon drifted off into rock & roll oblivion. Had they been able to maintain the wonderful momentum of their debut efforts, they may very well be bands we still talk about today as something other than a mere footnote or one-hit wonder.

Material Issue’s second effort is, by no means, a simple continuation of their first, even though it was also produced by Jeff Murphy and released roughly a year after International Pop Overthrow.

This time around, Ellison throws in a few bells and whistles, most noticeably in the form of a wah-wah guitar riff that drives the kitschy album opener, “What Girls Want”. Overall, there is a cleaner production throughout this album that isn’t quite as endearing to the ear as the lo-fi, gritty quality of the production on their debut. It is perhaps the result of having an actual budget to work with for the first time in their career, or perhaps the desire to produce an album that is as radio-friendly as possible that led to this album sounding a bit forced.

Make no mistake, “Everything”, “Next Big Thing” and “Don’t You Think I Know” easily rank with the best songs Ellison ever wrote. That they weren’t says more about the thin production and underdeveloped arrangements. I know that Stereofuse tried a couple years ago, but I still think someone will come along and cut a version of “Everything” that will explode at radio. Fuck, I’ll do it if I have to.

Material Issue/Freak City Soundtrack (Mercury) 1994

That Material Issue were still considered “up-and-coming” by the time they began contemplating their third album was probably a hard pill for Ellison to swallow. If anyone craved the limelight and all the trappings that stardom brought, it was Ellison and, while he had amassed a credible collection of vintage guitars, owned his own place in a hip section of Chicago, and was a bit of a local big shot, he and the band wanted more.

Add to that Ellison’s unabashed love for all things Sweet (as in the 70’s band best known for the hits “Ballroom Blitz” and “Little Willy”) and it made total sense that the band would seek Mike Chapman (who had co-written many of the Sweet’s best songs) to produce their third album and that this noted producer – who’d turned the knobs on hits Nick Gilder, Blondie, The Knack, Scandal and Pat Benatar – would jump at the chance to work with them. Granted, as Ellison pointed out to Chapman early on in their working relationship, in the recent past, he’d also agreed to work with cheesy Australian rockers Baby Animals.

“Goin’ Through Your Purse” opens the album Sweetly, pun intended. Zelenko admirably replicates “Ballroom Blitz’s” manic drum beat, over which Ellison’s tale of mistrust and impending betrayal glides effortlessly. Did this tune deserve to be a hit? Perhaps. It didn’t quite fit in with radio formats at the time, but who on Earth could fail to be moved by Ellison’s angst-ridden list of items discovered in rummaging through his lover’s purse:

“…Well a photo of your mother
And the boys who dated you
And your high school graduation ring

And a paycheck from the place you work
And some poetry from some stupid jerk
Who’s trying to steal your heart from me
I hope you don’t get offended girl
And I hope you don’t get hurt
By the things I found when I was goin’ thru your purse.”

“Kim The Waitress” was about as close to the Ish were ever gonna get to playing the “lookin’-for-a-hit power ballad” game and, while the chorus is out-of-the-ballpark, the verses tend to lag a bit too much, in my humble opinion. The Ellison-penned “I Could Use You” is easily one of his most heartfelt ballads and, while not boasting the smash-hit chorus of “Waitress”, it is just as deserving of consideration as a single.

Considering that the Smithereens, with whom Ellison was friendly, were still chart contenders at the time, the unabashed Smithereens rip-off “One Simple Word” may seem a smidge too derivative, but what the hell, it coulda been a single as well.

Are you beginning to see a pattern here? There were singles aplenty on this record and, for once, Zelenko’s drumming wasn’t just trying to keep up with the rest of the band and the arrangements were tighter than tight throughout.

Material Issue/Goin’ Through Your Purse, Live in Chicago (Mercury) 1994
By the time this live EP was released, most in the MI camp could see the writing on the wall: the band’s days with Mercury were all but over. Despite moderate success with “Kim The Waitress”, the band’s third studio album had failed to generate the interest that all involved were hoping for. Ellison, like most under-achieving artists do, blamed the label and was confident that he and the band would be happier elsewhere. That they were to receive only lukewarm interest from other labels was news yet to come.

On one humid summer night in their hometown of Chicago, though, all was right with the world and a couple thousand fans got to bask in the power pop glory that was Material Issue.

All ten tracks (most of them were hidden within track 4 of the commercial EP release) are available to DONATE TO CHARITY SLICE readers.

Track Listing:

1. Master of Ceremonies (Intro by Urge Overkill’s Nash Kato)
2. Goin’ Through Your Purse
3. Kim The Waitress
4. Very First Lie
5. The Fan
6. Funny Feeling
7. What Girls Want
8. Diane
9. Valerie Loves Me
10. Ballroom Blitz

Material Issue/Telecommando Americano (Rykodisc) 1997

I wrestled with whether or not to include this album as part of Material Issue’s Career In A Nutshell installment, as it was released posthumously, and finally decided that it is an integral part of who they are as a band.

Having been an acquaintance of Jim’s for years, I knew that he was going through some heavy fucking shit (there’s no kind way of putting it, sorry mom) and there was a lot of talk going around that I will not go into. Let’s just say that I was worried and, to this day, my heart races when I think about the phone ringing and a mutual friend telling me that Jim had committed suicide.

Things like that just don’t happen to guys like Jim. If they do, then that would mean that I’m not immune to such tendencies either and that, at the time, scared the crap out of me.

There’s just no way to listen to “What If I Killed Your Boyfriend” without feeling that Ellison was a man on the edge, grasping with some real pain and desperation.

Adding to this same vibe, “Head Shop”, seems to be a very thinly veiled “thanks but no thanks” to those who may have been urging Jim to get some psychological help. As it has been reported that Ellison tried to call a few friends prior to his suicide, but none of those in question were home at the time, “Off The Hook” is made all the more disturbing by the sampled sound of a phone left off the hook.

Of all the material on this release, “You Were Beautiful” is perhaps the song that stands out the most – not because of any odd lyrical turns. It sounds like a song that would not seem out of place on early Elvis Costello & The Attractions record and aches to be covered by someone who can realize the song’s ultimate potential.

Though unfinished at the time of his death, Zelenko, Ansani and producer Jay O’Rourke (a former member of Epic Records band The Insiders) added enough finishing touches to make the album comparable to the Ish’s other releases. Still, some of the sludgy guitar work and under-developed intro’s definitely tag these recordings as “demo quality”. There’s a noticeable drop-off when comparing these tracks to the big-league “Freak City” sound.

Sadly, the band never got to do the material justice. Sadder still is that Ellison chose to take his ball and go home over a woman who he’d no doubt be well over by now if he could’ve only seen past that initial crushing blow of rejection.

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