An alternative rock power trio from the northern United States who released three studio albums in the early Nineties and whose best-known song is from 1991. Smells like Nirvana? Another band that fits that exact description but unfortunately never got anything approaching the same level of recognition was Material Issue, a Chicago-based outfit comprised of drummer Mike Zelenko, bassist Ted Ansani and guitarist, lead singer and principal songwriter Jim Ellison.
Material Issue released their debut album International Pop Overthrow in 1991. The first single “Valerie Loves Me” faired well on alternative radio, and the album reached #66 in Billboard and sold an impressive 300,000 copies. But otherwise, the issue may have been timing: this was virtually the exact moment when Seattle grunge rock began to dominate the rock landscape. So between Material Issue’s “clearer,” more straightforward sound (reminiscent of both Sixties garage rock and hooky early British punk bands like the Buzzcocks) and Ellison’s higher-pitched vocals (a sharp contrast from the low growl of singers like Eddie Vedder and Layne Staley), the band had some trouble getting noticed.
Declining sales for their next two albums, Destination Universe (1992) and Freak City Soundtrack (1994) unfortunately reflected this, even as Material Issue stayed busy as touring band. Live dates during this period including opening slots for the Pretenders, INXS and the Replacements, among others (Material Issue even had another up-and-coming alternative band, Weezer, as their opening act).
By 1995 – the same year Material Issue teamed with fellow Chicago-based rocker Liz Phair to record a cover of “The Tra La La Song (One Banana, Two Banana),” the theme song from the whimsical Sixties kids show The Banana Splits – trends in rock were clearly changing. Grunge had peaked, with new trends in rock favoring Britpop (Oasis, Blur) and what some were calling “mall punk” (Green Day, the Offspring). As their sound arguably split the difference between those two genres, Material Issue might have finally had the chance to make it big in this new music climate.
Sadly, this would never come to pass: the band would end up having another parallel with Nirvana, when Material Issue’s lead singer, guitarist and main songwriter also ended his own life by committing suicide. This occurred on June 20, 1996, when Jim Ellison subjected himself to carbon monoxide poisoning in his garage (he apparently did leave a note, although the contents had never been made public).
Material Issue was indeed largely unappreciated in their own time, and there’s been little evidence of any measurable level of renewed interest in the band since then. But this might finally change, as the band is about to be the subject of a feature documentary, Out of Time: The Material lssue Story, to be released in theaters next month. Hopefully, this will re-introduce (or possibly just introduce) this woefully underrated band to a new generation of fans. But meanwhile, here are ten of their songs which we also believe provide a very good starting point.
#10 – Out Right Now
In this bouncy, uptempo track from Material Issue’s classic debut album International Pop Overthrow, the song’s narrator wonders aloud why he’s unable to win the love of a certain girl, and what he interprets as her response (over and over) is obviously the outgoing message (“I’m out right now/Leave your name and number on the recording”) on her answering machine (this was 1991, so it probably wasn’t voicemail just yet). Almost all the band’s songs are short (this one is barely two minutes), and like most of them, on this song they manage to pack a great deal into a limited amount of time.
#9 – Trouble
One of the comparatively few Material Issue songs not about a girl, this one opens with the always-promising lyric “Well, let me tell you all a little story… “ Definitely one of their darker ones musically and thematically, the “Trouble” specifically described in the song’s title occurs when the victim of a robbery some time later successfully tracks down the perpetrator. The song then ends with someone in prison awaiting execution, although it’s unclear if it’s the original victim having killed the robber, or the robber having been brought to justice though the victim’s efforts.
#8 – Everything
This remarkably beautiful and poignant ballad from the band’s second album Destination Universe enters as an acoustic number before the bass and drums come in to carry the rest of the track. The song’s narrator tells explains to his love that he would give “everything” to be with them, even if the list he rattles off does seem like a bit of an odd mix (“The sun, the moon, the earth, the sky/The motorcycle that I love to ride”). Although the main component of the lyrics clearly derives from Bread’s 1972 hit “Everything I Own,” the song serves another example of the tremendous potential that Jim Ellison always had as a songwriter.
#7 – Kim the Waitress
The first single from Material Issue’s third (and final) studio album Freak City Soundtrack is also the group’s longest track as well as the only cover song on any of their original albums. “Kim the Waitress” was originally written and recorded in 1994 by Green Pajamas, an LA band who were part of that city’s psychedelic revival scene at the time (and still together, according to the intent). However, Material Issue’s take on the song adds a bit more of their pop-punk style with less of the late Sixties influence which defined the original.
#6 – Don’t You Think I Know
This mid-tempo offering from Destination Universe is an acoustic-based gem which once again exhibits near-perfection in crafting a poignant and hook-driven song, even throwing in a late-period Beatles-type bridge. Though the song – like most of those in the Material Issue catalogue – is about a romance, the lyric “Someday soon you known we’ll finish what we started” sadly took on a bit of a different meaning after Ellison’s tragic ending in 1996 cut short any chance for the band to ever realize their full potential.
#5 – Chance of a Lifetime
This angry breakup song from International Pop Overthrow in which the narrator demands that a lover hit the bricks (“I don’t wanna hear it anymore/Go ahead, there’s the door”) ironically invites the listener to stick around with its Sixties garage sound, chugga-chugga drum beat and the picking up of the tempo in the final twenty second which drives this track of just three minutes and change to a bombastic climax. “I’d rather die than compromise,” Material Issue sing here. They in compromised on very few – if any – of their songs (certainly not this one).
#4 – So Easy to Love Somebody
It’s easy to love this heartfelt rocker from Destination Universe. The song opens with Ellison singing a cappella, which is then overdubbed into a two-part harmony. The first line of the verse (“I woke up in love this morning”) is lifted from a song by – of all musical entities – the Partridge Family, but this just further illustrates the band’s ability to serve up just the exactly right touch of irony. Musically, the song is another near-perfect Material Issue verse-chorus-bridge assemblage.
#4 – Li’l Christine
Songs with girls’ names have always been a staple of rock ‘n’ roll, but on their debut album International Pop Overthrow, Material Issue presents no less than four. Joining “Diane,” “Renee Remains the Same” and another song that we’ll get to is “Li’l Christine,” which closes the album. This tight rocker opens with some explosive and tight guitar riffing before bringing us to a jangly chorus, and Jim Ellison even displays his extended prowess with an impressive guitar solo later on in the song.
#3 – Girl From Out of This World
The majority of Material Issue songs are about a girl, but we’re pretty sure this one from Destination Universe is the only one about a girl who also happens to be an extraterrestrial. This fun, tight and catchy uptempo rocker opens with a twang before it unfolds into a tale about a star-gazer who encounters a girl in spaceship who forthwith invites him to come along for the ride: “She said, ‘You’re in quite a trip.’” So is anyone who listens to this song.
#2 – What Girls Want
The first single from Material Issue’s second album Destination Universe is yet another uptempo ode to unrequited love which puts the track’s Sixties influence upfront with not only its quasi-psychedelic sound (courtesy of a wah wah pedal) but also by name-dropping by Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Rod Stewart. The production style and bridge and definitely more of the Nineties, but in the end it becomes the musical hodgepodge that anyone who loved the band’s debut album would want.
#1 – Valerie Loves Me
Material Issue’s debut single, which would quickly become (and remain) their signature tune, opens with an arpeggiated guitar riff which then gives way to a song which is subtle and understated in some ways but packs a real sting. Despite being a solid introduction to Material Issue as the generally “fun” band that they were, this one, on some levels, is actually a bit dark: for the first two verses the narrator describes an obsession with a woman (that would obviously be Valerie) from whom he can’t get any attention, and by the end of the song seemingly quite a bit of time has passed and he no longer wants her, as she’s “lonely in an apartment down the street, you know/And her hair has turned so grey.” The lyrics to the song might not have aged particularly well either, but musically “Valerie Loves Me” still shows clearly why more people should have paid attention to Material Issue.
Top 10 Material Issue Songs article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2021
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