Alright, I’m just gonna say it: Material Issue was the best power pop band there’s ever been. Period. End of story. Done. You doubting me, son? Tell me who was better! Shoes? Nah…they were all pop, no power. Cheap Trick? A greater band overall, sure, but not really power pop. Ditto for Big Star. Raspberries? Even their best albums were half filler! 20/20? The Beat? They probably had better debut albums, but after that…not so much. If we go by the textbook definition of power pop, as per All Music Guide (“a cross between the crunching hard rock of the Who and the sweet melodicism of the Beatles and Beach Boys, with the ringing guitars of the Byrds thrown in for good measure”), Chicago’s mighty Ish was not only the genre’s most emblematic band, but also its best.
It wasn’t until its third album, Freak City Soundtrack, that Material Issue captured the hard edge and big rock energy of its live show on record. But for anyone seeking the best introduction to this extraordinary band, International Pop Overthrow remains the mandatory starting point. With the first three songs featuring girls’ names in their titles, and only one of 14 tracks exceeding the four minute mark, the battle plan is clear before you’ve heard a single note. This is classic power pop, and as such it exhibits a perfect simplicity that masks its considerable artistry. Given the familiar melody-driven style and well-worn “songs about girls” motif, it would be all too easy for one to dismiss these songs as formulaic dreck. Some rock critics already have, and as punishment they will face an eternity in a fiery hell, where there are no cute chicks or record shops, and “Party In the U.S.A.” plays 24/7. Sure, it's pop. And no, it didn't overthrow anything. But to sell this album short is to deny the distinct gifts of one of the finest singer/songwriters to ever pick up a guitar, one James Walter Ellison.
With a singing voice so pure and plaintive and unique that it feels like you’re listening to your best friend, Jim Ellison infused these simple pop songs with rare emotional depth and profound insights into the human condition. He was hardly the first man to write pop songs about broken hearts, infatuation, and unrequited love. But I can think of few others, ever, who’ve done it better. His melodies were gorgeous and instantly memorable. His lyrics were touching and truthful and sometimes so unbearably REAL that they could break your heart in ten words or less. And if the pop singer’s greatest task is to summon up all that heartbreak and longing and loss and despair and tortuous relationship woe of a short lifetime and somehow make the listener FEEL it, then Ellison was the king.
Recorded over a two-year period at Short Order Recorder, with Jeff Murphy in the producer’s chair, IPO has the sonic sensibility of a Shoes album. The recording is minimalistic, demo-like, and devoid of the power trio’s live oomph, forcing the songs themselves to the forefront. And what songs they are! Most pop bands would kill to boast a career best-of with as many “hits” as this humble debut. The college radio staple “Valerie Loves Me”, a jangly slice of melancholy as haunting as it is hummable, isn’t even the best track! “Li’l Christine” and “Out Right Now” would have been pop radio smashes if pop radio actually played radio pop. “Very First Lie” starts off like standard ballad fare, then surprises, musically and lyrically, in all the best ways. Listen to “Diane” once, and it’ll be stuck in your head all day.
Material Issue would follow with Destination Universe, a brighter and equally hit-packed gem of an album. And Freak City Soundtrack, with its glammy arena feel, rocks it up without abandoning the plot. But IPO is Ellison’s master work, its tales of love and longing as beautifully rendered as a film or a collection of short stories. Even the funniest lines (“You're only breaking my heart/But that's the very best part” or “And I'd write this down if I only had a pen/And I'd skip the lonely part”) come from a sad place in the aching heart. The painful truth about “Valerie Loves Me” is that she doesn’t love him, and never will, and our protagonist’s only consolation probes the darkest realms of the adolescent heart:
Valerie's lonely in an apartment down the street you know/
And her hair has turned so grey/
But she's so happy, for the memories she has you know/
She can believe in the day when love was on a string/
And she could have that anything she ever wanted/
But she can't have me
And leave it to a soul as wounded as Ellison to catch you off-guard with a sudden, unexpected turn that nails the flawed essence of boy-girl relations:
I'd like to wake up with you early in the morning/
Or stay up late just playin' records on your phonograph/
I'd like to get to know your mother and your father/
Maybe just once pretend to be somebody's better half/
And I would like to tell the very first lie
Considering that Jim Ellison took his own life a mere five years after the release of International Pop Overthrow, there’s the temptation to hear him as a specter, eerily pining away from the great beyond. But there’s nothing spooky about any of the band’s recordings. Ellison sought out to make fun, enjoyable music, and that’s exactly what he did. If IPO is anything, it’s warm, reassuring - its songs reminding all of us who’ve suffered from love’s great agonies that someone out there felt our pain and managed to articulate it so beautifully. Laden with melodies that will never leave our brains and harmonies that could have fallen from the heavens, this is one of those albums that everyone ought to own.