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Permanent Records: Albums from The A.V. Club's Hall of Fame

Material Issue
Freak City Soundtrack

The context: In his all-too-brief career, Material Issue frontman Jim Ellison channeled the emotional rollercoaster of adolescence and its melodramatic conviction that every crush is a love destined to span the ages, every break-up is a torment worse than anything hell has to offer, and the greatest achievement is playing kick-ass rock 'n' roll in auditoriums full of screaming teenage girls. While his Chicago rock peers treated the then-passé notion of rock stardom with ambivalence, or "embraced" it ironically (à la Urge Overkill), Ellison nakedly aspired to be a rock god. There was as much Sweet as Big Star in Ellison's musical DNA, which made him an anomaly in a musical landscape dominated by grunge posers. In spite of an abundance of great tunes and seemingly can't-miss singles, Freak City Soundtrack flopped commercially, Material Issue was dropped by its major label, and Ellison committed suicide in 1996. A final Material Issue album, Telecommando Americano, was released in 1997.


The greatness: Ellison wrote gorgeous melodies and monster hooks for buzzy power-pop ditties like "She's Going Through My Head" and "Help Me Land" with bitter, bracing undertones. But as hopes of stardom faded, the darkness increasingly came to the fore: Telecommando Americano has a song called "What If I Killed Your Boyfriend" that accomplishes the impossible feat of living up to its title. On the sitar-tinged ballad "Kim The Waitress," a cover of a Green Pajamas song, Ellison comes off like the kind of loose cannon who could quickly morph from the romantic bearing roses and candy at the door to the drunken, angry jilted lover slashing tires and spray-painting obscene graffiti. It's a tender love song that could easily come from a determined stalker, a bitter valentine to an impossible object of desire who remains tragically just out of reach. 

Defining song: Even more than "Kim The Waitress," "Going Through Your Purse" rides the knife edge separating romantic devotion from psychotic obsession, as Ellison delivers a detailed inventory of the seemingly insignificant contents of a girlfriend's purse. It quickly becomes an obsessive meditation on the impossibility of keeping a loved one from the myriad temptations of a callous world. In true Material Issue fashion, it's both a perfect three-minute pop song and a harrowing exploration of jealousy and madness.

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