Friday, August 6, 2010

Big Block Records (1988)

When critics look back on the Chicago music scene in the 1990's, almost all the coolness is geographically consigned to Wicker Park, but it's also useful to look back on the origin stories. Whereas the Chicago punk scene in the early-1980's was largely made up of city kids, the 90's generation was seriously suburban. Liz Phair's roots were in the North Shore suburbs, clearly evidenced in her post-Matador output. Urge Overkill came together not in the city-proper, but at Northwestern University in Evanston. Even the loner mentality of Billy Corgan's early Smashing Pumpkins was more rooted in his West-Suburban upbringing than his city adulthood--evidenced in the number of 1990's suburban kids with worn copies of "Siamese Dream." Jim Ellison was fully of Addison, Illinois. His sensibility was tied to the suburbs, a place where one feels more in high school than ever again, and longing power pop tracks like "Valerie Loves Me," "Diane," and "The Very First Lie" reflected that high school moment musically and lyrically.

Jim Ellison wanted to be a rock star, and Material Issue was his vehicle to success. He started Big Block records out of his bedroom, and through tireless promotion steered Material Issue to a major label contract in the early 1990's.

For awhile they were one of Chicago's great sucess stories: signed to Mercury Records, getting airplay on MTV's "120 Minutes," and making the CMJ and Billboard Modern Rock Charts. In the midst of all this, Ellison still made office hours for aspiring high school bands in need of guidance. For a guy who loved rock and roll, music, and cars, he had a surprisingly non-existent douchebag quotient.

VH1's "Behind the Music" has oft-told the story of some hair metal group or other casually, carelessly thrown from the spotlight by the grunge movement, but hair metal was not the only casualty. Power pop was jettisoned from success, as well, and Material Issue was one clear victim of this trend. They left Mercury Records after 1994's "Freak City Soundtrack," feeling that the label had turned its back to the band. By the time their final album, 1997's "Telecommando Americano," was completed, Ellison had been dead for a year.

Ellison's suicide in 1996 was a sad confirmation of his own deep romanticism. The contents of his suicide note are still private, but Ish-drummer Mike Zelenko has implied in interviews that his death was the result of an ended love affair, rather than frustrated career ambitions. There are so many elements in this early death that carry a poetic resonance, but the perfect story hardly makes up for the loss.

This label is from the pre-Mercury days, probably pieced together in Jim Ellison's bedroom. The music is still fun but it does feel, at times, like there is a ghost in the room.

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