Fans of Chicago’s Material Issue cite the late singer/guitarist (and early Green member) Jim Ellison’s seemingly effortless knack for writing brisk, unforgettable hard-pop tunes. Detractors point to his annoyingly affected British accent and that his songs (while enjoyable) can seem a bit too calculated. There’s something to be said for both arguments, but there’s no doubt that, at its best, Material Issue was responsible for some of the ’90s’ juiciest Big Star/Cheap Trick-style power pop at a time when it was well out of fashion.
The 12-inch Material Issue EP (produced by Jeff Murphy of Shoes) is a great beginning, six songs filled with punky energy, enthusiastic performances (by Ellison, bassist Ted Ansani and drummer Mike Zelenko, who would go on to pound the skins on a few Shoes discs) and hooks up the wazoo. “She’s Going Through My Head,” the riff-happy “A Very Good Thing” and “Chance of a Lifetime” are standouts.
Material Issue continued to record with Murphy, completing International Pop Overthrow before signing to a major label. As befits the genre, this power pop gem contains no less than four songs with girls’ names in the titles. Although Ellison’s occasional inclination towards quantity over quality makes some of the 14 tracks less memorable than others, “Valerie Loves Me,” “Renee Remains the Same,” “This Far Before” and “Very First Lie” are should-be singles of the first order. (Issued to radio around the same time was the promo-only 11 Supersonic Hit Explosions, which features a lovely acoustic version of “Diane” and the otherwise unavailable “The Girl Who Never Falls in Love,” along with covers of Paul Simon’s “The Boxer,” Thin Lizzy’s “Cowboy Song” and Sweet’s “Blockbuster.”)
The sophomore jinx bit hard on Destination Universe (co-produced, as was International Pop Overthrow, by Murphy), which suffers from a serious lack of strong tunes. The number that received the most attention — the silly “What Girls Want” (“…a man with lips just like Mick Jagger / Rod Stewart’s hair and Keith Richards’ stagger”) — sounds like Tommy Roe’s “Dizzy” rocked up a bit. Just to hammer home his familiarity with ’60s/’70s AM radio, Ellison acknowledges the riff from the Edison Lighthouse’s “Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)” in his own “When I Get This Way (Over You).” Another bad sign: rewriting the first album’s “Crazy” and calling it “Girl From Out of This World.” Only the sweetly affecting “Next Big Thing” and the powerfully poppy “Whole Lotta You” stand between Destination Universe and creative oblivion.
The trio then came back strong with its finest album, Freak City Soundtrack, produced by glam/bubblepop guru Mike Chapman. New versions of the debut EP’s “She’s Goin’ Thru My Head” and “A Very Good Thing” are the cornerstones of the disc, which also features a very cool cover of the Green Pajamas’ late-’80s pearl “Kim the Waitress” and such nifty Ellison originals as the hyper “Goin’ Through Your Purse” and the manic “Help Me Land” — two minutes of slashing power chords, a frenzied vocal and Zelenko’s totally out-of-control drumming. Freak City Soundtrack is an unqualified triumph.
The live (and longer than listed) Goin’ Through Your Purse is very nearly a Material Issue best-of, containing as it does sweaty performances of “Valerie Loves Me,” “Kim the Waitress,” “Diane,” “What Girls Want” and five more, all recorded in front of a rabid home town crowd. You can almost hear the beer being spilled.
Ellison killed himself in a Chicago garage in June 1996.