The best band I forgot about?

A couple of days ago I ran across a Material Issue CD at a secondhand store. It was priced at $1, so I couldn’t pass that up. They were a band that was always on my list of CDs to buy, but never moved high enough on the list that I ever got around to it. And of course, in 1995 they just dropped off the radar entirely.

Like most bands I like, it seems, they have a sad story.Material Issue was a Chicago band whose major-label debut sold 300,000 copies, which wasn’t bad for an alternative band in 1990-91. Their songs ranged from power pop ballads to the just plain weird, and I remember hearing their songs “Valerie Loves Me” and “What Girls Want” on Les Aaron’s “New Music Sunday” radio show on 97.1 FM in St. Louis in the early 1990s. That stuff was just too weird to get much play on the right-hand side of the FM dial in those days, and for that matter, I don’t know that even Les Aaron played them every week.

Alternative music became the new big thing (and ceased being alternative, in a lot of ways) in 1992-93, due in large part to Nirvana bursting onto the scene. I remember every station with alternative sympathies in St. Louis and Columbia, Mo. having them in rotation after that, and critics always thought highly of their work, but for some reason their stuff just didn’t catch on.

In 1995, their record label dropped them after their third record sold a mere 50,000 copies. (In 1975, Lou Reed proved that a recording of 60 minutes of guitar feedback could sell 100,000 copies.) A year later, their lead singer/guitarist Jim Ellison was dead, committing suicide about a month after his 32nd birthday.

Ellison and Material Issue really could have been a Cars for the 1990s. Like Cars leader Ric Ocasek, Ellison penned quirky, disturbed lyrics, and he even had a slightly odd look, like Ocasek.

The song I really remember Material Issue for was “Kim the Waitress,” which was pretty much their last hurrah. And it wasn’t even their song, originally. I was vaguely aware that it was a cover, and I dug up the original, by a Seattle band called Green Pajamas, on Youtube. Material Issue’s version is faithful to the original, but still sounds like Material Issue. The original is a bit quirkier still, featuring a sitar, but Ellison sang it with a bit more urgency than the Green Pajamas did. To the Green Pajamas, Kim the Waitress comes off as a crush, whereas Material Issue sounds like they’re head over heels in love with a girl they barely know.

In the early 2000s, Stereo Fuse scored a minor hit covering Material Issue’s ballad “Everything.” Stereo Fuse electrified it (the original was largely acoustic), and in a way Stereo Fuse’s version ended up sounding more like Material Issue than Material Issue did, but Stereo Fuse didn’t capture Jim Ellison’s urgency in the lyrics.

It’s really too bad I didn’t pay more attention to them in the early 1990s. They were the kind of band that any shy, slightly neurotic guy would really relate to.

I guess Material Issue came in with too much emo too soon, and sounded a little too psychedelic too late. If they’d come around 20 years earlier or later than they did, they might have done better. Or, maybe Jim Ellison was just a shade too honest in his songwriting, and people were afraid of what others might think if they admitted to liking his stuff.

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