By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Snap, crackle, power pop
There seems to be no Local Band Hell more deserving of the title than that which is found in Chicago. With the possible exception of a healthy--if a tad contrived--alt-country scene, Windy City bands slave away and slag each other as if the world depended on it, yet never seem to get any farther than a day's drive out of town.
The only two bands to come within recent range of refuting such an observation were Material Issue and Urge Overkill. With Telecommando Americano--the posthumous fourth release from the former, recorded before the suicide death of MI leader Jim Ellison--one is left to contrast the might-have-beens. With Urge--especially after their witless cover of "Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon"--the sensation was one of relief. With Material Issue, the lingering emotion is still one of regret, despite the band--and Ellison's--very Urge-like failings; it's a melancholy that Telecommando only reinforces.
Their memorable 1991 Mercury debut International Pop Overthrow was obscured by Nirvana's Nevermind, but even then Material Issue made it clear that they were the heirs apparent to the fuel-injected bubblegum that started with acts like the Raspberries, continued with groups like the Jam (smart side), and the Knack (you know what side). The band didn't change much--six tracks from their 1987 EP tacked onto the end of Telecommando in tribute don't sound that different from the 11 songs before them--but what they did, they did right.
Their mix of plaintive post-adolescent longing (and anger), rock convention, and snappy songcraft reflected the pop ideals kept alive by New Wave into yet another decade while preserving the bleeding heart of an earlier era. It's no mistake that one of their first notable songs, "Renee Remains the Same," shared a name with the Left Banke's classic "Walk Away Renee." The same sense of pained self-awareness--and dramatic self-pity--runs through almost all of MI's songs, most evident on tunes like "Satellite" and "Carousel." Just as obvious is the band's ability to work through pop conventions--who else could cop the ringing, jingling roller-rink rhythm track that accompanies "2 Steps" (not to mention the lyric references to Chevy Malibus and years like 1969 and 1972) except someone with a mission, or at the very least a lot of belief? That such acuity exists alongside Ellison's final tragic footnote is a puzzle for others to unravel; sadly, in the end, Material Issue proved themselves better at the questions than the answers.