The Best of Material Issue: 20th Century Masters – The Millennium Collection Label: Mercury
Although it’s both easy and fun to give these 20th Century Masters discs the royal smackdown because they’re so often inferior to preexisting best-of collections or – as in the case of the Berlin set that just came out – have track listings identical to preexisting best-of collections, once in awhile, props need to be given when a disc pops up for a band that’s never gotten the greatest-hits treatment before…which is the case for Material Issue.
The timing just wasn’t right for Material Issue to take over the world, although it wasn’t for lack of catchy material or a frenetic live show. Not to belittle bassist Ted Ansani or drummer Mike Zelenko, but it was the band’s frontman, Jim Ellison, who was the lifeblood of Material Issue; Ellison sang lead, played guitar, and was the band’s songwriter, and it was he who stalked the stage like a wild-eyed madman and made the group’s shows so phenomenal. (Seriously, the only person that I can think of who looked more intimidating when I saw him live was Peter Garrett, late of Midnight Oil.) As such, when Ellison made the very poor decision to commit suicide in 1996, presumably due to the one-two punch of having a relationship end on his birthday (ouch) and the band being dropped by Mercury, that was unquestionably the end of the band. Soldiering on wasn’t even an option.
Each of Material Issue’s three albums – 1991’s International Pop Overthrow (the title of which inspired a traveling pop music festival run by one David Bash), 1992’s Destination Universe, and 1994’s Freak City Soundtrack – scored at least one top-20 hit on Billboard’s Modern Rock Chart, but it was a series of diminishing returns with the record-buying public, who were busy with the tail-end of the Seattle scene and the early rumblings of the punk revival. In their time, though, Material Issue had a lot of prominent fans – their first two albums were produced by the Shoes’ Jeff Murphy, and their live disc, Goin’ Through Your Purse, features guest appearances from Nash Kato (Urge Overkill) and Rick Nielsen (Cheap Trick) – and set the template for ‘90s power pop…a small accomplishment in the grand scheme of things, perhaps, but tell that to folks like Swirl 360, Hutch, and Barely Pink, all of whom list the band as influences on MySpace.
This best-of set from Mercury does about as good a job of summarizing the Material Issue sound as any compilation could; it draws from all three of the albums the group released during their existence. The group’s four big singles, “Valerie Loves Me,” “Diane,” “What Girls What,” and “Kim the Waitress,” are all here, with select album tracks as well. Missing is anything from the posthumously-released Telecommando Americano, probably because the album came out on a different label (Rykodisc), but Mercury makes up for that by including a live cover of Sweet’s “Ballroom Blitz,” which had been a longtime staple of the band’s live sets.
Mind you, in a perfect world, Mercury would’ve added a bonus disc full of the many covers Material Issue did over the years; even excluding the stuff they did for other labels, like the Hollies’ “Bus Stop” (from the Eggbert tribute disc, Sing Hollies in Reverse) or the Grass Roots’ “I’d Wait a Million Years” (for Yellow Pills, Vol. 4 on the late, great Big Deal Records), it would’ve been really nice to hear Thin Lizzy’s “Cowboy Song,” from the Diane EP, or Grand Funk Railroad’s “Bad Time,” which appeared on the “What Girls Want” single. But, then, sooner or later, I forsee a collection called Material Issue: The Mercury Years, which will include everything the band ever did for the label. For now, however, this is a great collection by a band that deserved far more success than they ever received in their time.