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Telecommandos: Material Issue (left to right: Ted Ansai, Mike Zelenko, Jim Ellison).

Material Issue lives one more time on 'Telecommando Americano'

By Nicky Baxter

Material Issue didn't invent power pop--credit for that belongs to '70s bands such as the Raspberries and Cheap Trick. What founder, singer/songwriter and guitarist Jim Ellison, bassist Ted Ansani and drummer Mike Zelenko did do was to spit-shine the concept for the next generation.

The first post-punk group to burst out of Chicago's then-provincial rock scene, Material Issue had everything going for it: great ballsy Beatlesque melodies, hefty chunks of power-chord guitar and jaunty vocals. But it all came to a skidding halt when Ellison took his life last year.

Telecommando Americano (Rykodisc) is the final chapter in the Material Issue story. A bracing collection of Ellison's final songs, with a six-song EP first released in 1987 appended, these tracks almost succeed in making you forget about the tragedy of the singer's suicide.

Of Telecommando's 11 new tunes, "What If I Kill Your Boyfriend" and "Satellite" best illustrate Ellison's evolution as a musician. Both songs are edgier than anything on International Pop Overthrow, the band's 1991 debut album. Overthrow buzzes and stings like a swarm of yellowjackets, but the sugarcoated lyrics act as an anesthetic.

By the time of Telecommando, however, the gloves are off. "What If I Killed Your Boyfriend," for instance, roils with ornery wah-wah guitar, bullying bass and muscle-bound drumming. Ellison practically snarls the verses, yet behind the rage lurks a hint of desperation as well. For all that, "Boyfriend" is as hummable as a nursery rhyme.

"Satellite" slams into gear with more nasty wah-wah, this time abetted by ethereal effects and a throbbing pulse. Here as elsewhere, Ellison's yearning for human connection appears manifest. That suspended orb could very well be the girl of his dreams, light years away from his outstretched arms.

On previous trips to the studio, specifically Freak City Soundtrack, Material Issue touched up its pop with a thin but perceptible gloss. Telecommando was recorded in co-producer Jay O'Rourke's garage and sounds like it in all the right ways. Ansani's bass heaves and quakes with galvanic force, and drummer Mike Zelenko's attacks his kit with felonious intent.

Ironically, Telecommando Americano's power pop dovetails nicely with the 1987 material. Both epitomize smash-mouth rock, the chief difference being Anansi's more pronounced vocal contributions on the earlier set. And if on the EP, the band flaunts its influences like kids brandishing a jar of flies, so what? It's impossible to sit still through the trio's Cheap Trick rip on "A Very Good Thing." From Ellison's dead-on Robin Zander vocal pout to the his Rick Nielsen-ish guitar, it's Rockford, Ill., all the way.

"Mary Spins a Rainbow" slyly recalls the Beatles' "She Said She Said" while simultaneously flashing a nod and wink at the Ramones; Ellison's plaintive guitar perfectly complements his wounded-pup yelp. R.I.P., Jim.

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