Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Retro Reviews: Material Issue - Freak City Soundtrack

I've gone on record calling Material Issue the greatest power pop band of all-time, and not once since have I felt like changing my mind. I'm sure if you polled hardcore Ish fans (myself included), International Pop Overthrow would be the overwhelming choice as the band's best album. But if there's any major flaw to IPO, it's that it's heavy on the pop but a little light on power. Second LP Destination Universe, in spite of mostly terrific songs, also lacks anything resembling a hard edge. For their third album, Jim Ellison and co. turned to a producer capable of harnessing the energy and punch of their legendary live shows. That individual was the great Mike Chapman - whose work with Sweet, The Knack, and Nick Gilder had been huge influences on the band's music. It was a match made in heaven, and not surprisingly the result was a classic pop/rock album. Sadly it was a classic pop/rock album released at the height of grunge mania, and it was such a massive commercial flop that it led to the band getting dropped by Mercury Records the very next year. It would be the last album that Material Issue would complete during Ellison's lifetime.

Considering that "Goin' Through Your Purse" and "Ordinary Girl" are two of Jim Ellison's finest achievements as a songwriter, the label's choice of the Green Pajamas cover "Kim The Waitress" as the lead single confounds me to this day. Ultimately, though, it probably made little difference. It was 1994, and there wasn't much salable about a band like Material Issue in the heyday of Soundgarden and Stone Temple Pilots. But two decades later, Freak City Soundtrack doesn't sound so much misplaced in time as it does genuinely timeless. Ellison, undeniably one of the most overlooked songwriters of his day, again delivered a fine collection of hook-laden odes to love and loss. And the trio never sounded better on record - Chapman punching up the guitars and drums and making those harmonies positively soar. From the first glorious drum-thump of "Goin' Through Your Purse", Freak City brings an entirely different vibe compared to the band's first two releases. While the album does have its share of tender moments (the lush "I Could Use You" is one of Ellison's most beautiful songs), overall it's the kind of high energy rock record that sounds great in the car on a warm sunny day. And it really showcases one of rock's great unheralded rhythm sections in Ted Asani and Mike Zelenko. If you were lucky enough to have seen Material Issue in concert, surely you'd say this is the one album of theirs that best captured their live essence.

While Freak City is by no means a stylistic departure from Material Issue's previous work, it really brings the influences of glam rock and Cheap Trick to the forefront (Rick Nielsen even makes a guest appearance!). And the massive sound elicited by Chapman only heightens the power of Ellison's voice and lyrics. If the songs aren't quite as brilliant as those on International Pop Overthrow, for the most part they're still very good. I made a lot of Material Issue compilation tapes back in the day, and the likes of "Help Me Land", "Funny Feeling", and "She's Going Through My Head" (originally a 7" track from early in the band's career) were always mainstays of those collections. "Goin' Through Your Purse" is my favorite Material Issue song. It's a classic Ellison tale of love doomed by mistrust and deception - with the tone of his voice conveying far more than mere words could say.

When Ellison tragically took his own life in 1996, Material Issue was in the process of shopping new material to record labels. Telecommando Americano, a compilation released in 1997, paired recordings for the unfinished fourth Material Issue album with the band's self-titled EP from 1987. We'll never quite know what that fourth album could have become if Ellison had lived to complete it. As is, Telecommando Americano features a couple of Ellison's finest songs in "Carousel" and "You Were Beautiful" and hints that the band was poised to continue in the edgier direction of Freak City Soundtrack. Considering that Material Issue is officially my fourth-favorite band of all-time, it goes without saying that I urge you all to check out this criminally overlooked group. Whether you start with International Pop Overthrow or Freak City Soundtrack isn't really important. Either way, you're going to want to own all the music this band ever made.



Powerpopster said...

"Whether you start with International Pop Overthrow or Freak City Soundtrack isn't really important. Either way, you're going to want to own all the music this band ever made." That is so true!
Personally, I hold IPO as their masterpiece, but pretty much everything they released is of amazing greatness.

Unknown said...

Be happy to share a free PDF of my book about Material Issue ("International Pop Overthrow"). Jim Ellison was a childhood friend. Just email me (

Unknown said...