SWIMMING THE SONIC SEAS: Jellyfish

Jellyfish

Though lasting only a handful of years, the pop outfit’s legacy and influence endures, as expanded reissues of its two albums strikingly reveal. Above: the band puts its best foot(s) forward in an early promotional shot. Yes, kids, the early ’90s in San Francisco really WERE like that!

BY MICHAEL TOLAND

Picture, if you will, a young man entering a Sound Warehouse in the parking lot of a mall in a Houston suburb in 1990. Equally besotted by the top 40 hits of his childhood, the classic rock of his high school years and the Trouser Press Record Guide never far from his bespectacled eyeballs, he’s looking for something new to put in his Volkswagen’s tape deck. Heading to the new release listening tower (always his first stop in that store), he’s drawn to a colorful cassette. A giant naked woman, covered discretely in frosting swirls, reclines on green grass while a quartet of longhairs in utterly ridiculous clothes – mismatched, garish, topped by stupid hats – climb all over her. Plus a silly band name. Naturally, he has to hear the music housed inside such a ludicrous cover.

Jellyfish 1

Hooks wash over his cochlea. Intricate arrangements, carefully produced for maximum clarity. Spectacular vocals, both lead and harmony. And melodies for miles. And miles. A lifelong love affair commences.

The album, of course, is Bellybutton, the debut LP from the much-beloved Jellyfish, originally released in ’90 by the Charisma label. After releasing a handful of posthumous ‘fish records, Omnivore now rises to the challenge of reissuing this seminal record and its even more revered 1993 follow-up Spilt Milk in remastered editions, adding buckets of bonus tracks originally found on the long out of print (and quite collectably expensive) box set Fan Club. Even better are new interviews with the band members, including track-by-track commentary on the main album cuts from keyboardist Roger Joseph Manning Jr., guitarist Jason Falkner and the elusive singer/drummer Andy Sturmer that shed light on band favorites, working methods and artistic motivations.

A quarter of a century on, Bellybutton holds up spectacularly well. Though often noted as Beatlesque, the San Fran quartet takes its inspiration from a different generations of pop greats, from Harry Nilsson to Squeeze, from the Zombies to ELO, from Emitt Rhodes to Prefab Sprout – as Falkner notes, the band was more likely to listen to artists inspired by the Fab Four, rather than the Beatles themselves. Thus the songs scan familiar on one listen without any major (or at least obvious) thefts – at no point do we think, “Oh, that sounds just like [song] by [artist].” The record opens with back-to-back-to-back killers, from the aching ballad “The Man I Used to Be” to the tumbling pop gem “That is Why” (probably the band’s best-known tune) and the wry mini-epic “The King is Half-Undressed.” The rest of the songs suffer only by comparison; it’s difficult to think of the bossa nova addiction tale “Bedspring Kiss,” the yearning popster “Baby’s Coming Back” or the desperate bash-and-crash “All I Want is Everything” lacking in any way. Impeccably produced by Albhy Galuten and Jack Joseph Puig, crammed with hooks both brash and subtle, loaded with thoughtfully composed melodies given maximum punch by the kind of arrangements that bespeak intricate musical minds, Bellybutton is a classic, power pop or otherwise.

Most of the bonus cuts are live or demo versions of the album tracks, but even those are instructive. The members claim in the liner notes that most of Bellybutton was recorded live in just a couple of weeks, and the extra versions bear out how this would be possible; the live cuts emulate the studio version without lacking any fullness in the arrangements, and the demos sound 90% close to the final versions. This was a band fully prepared for its moment in the studio spotlight. The disks also include a few originals that didn’t make the studio cut, highlighted by the rocking “Mr. Late,” and some choice covers, including the band’s well-known take on Paul McCartney’s “Jet” and a blazing (!) run through the Archies’ (!!) “Sugar and Spice” with a gnarly Falkner solo. Essential.

Jellyfish 2

Three years later, shorn of Falkner and Manning’s bassist brother Chris, Sturmer and Manning returned to the studio with Galuten, Puig, new bass player Tim Smith and session cats Jon Brion and Lyle Workman to make Spilt Milk. Armed with more musical and technical expertise, the band set out to create a set of songs with enough dense arrangements, lush layers and strong melodies to keep listeners in discovery for years, and nearly succeeded. Stuffed with enough instrumentation to reflect a clear Brian Wilson influence but stopping well short of Phil Spectorian Wall of Sound, the tracks emphasize melody and harmony above all else, elevating the songs instead of obscuring them. Applied to the band’s updated sense of songcraft – cf. the biting “The Ghost at Number One” and “Joining a Fan Club,” the bouncy “Bye Bye Bye,” the roaring “All is Forgiven,” the gently smutty “My Best Friend” and the flat-out glorious “New Mistake” (the song Sturmer and Manning consider the band’s quintessential number) – the results are truly magical, the essence of what Jellyfish hoped to accomplish. Frankly, though, a few tunes don’t hold up to the album’s best – though hardly bad songs, the ballads “Glutton of Sympathy” and “Russian Hill” come off as too ephemeral, the straightforward “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late” suffers from a pat melody, and the rococo epic “Brighter Day” sounds like the band threw everything against the wall at the end of the session, hoping for something to stick. But even if it’s not cut-for-cut as strong as Bellybutton, Spilt Milk boasts enough extra-strength pop confectionary to make it as indispensable as its predecessor.

This edition comes packed with extras for the discerning ‘fish fan. A full set of album demos, in sequence, shows that, once again, the band knew exactly what it hoped to accomplish once it hit the studio. A few live cuts with post-recording guitarist Eric Dover reaffirm the band’s prowess as a concert act, and the inclusion of its final recording – a lovely cover of Harry Nilsson’s “Think About Your Troubles” for a tribute album – is a nice touch. That noted, diehards will likely get most excited about the eight demos on disk 1, none of which were re-recorded for the album and only four of which previously appeared on Fan Club. (The other four appeared as B-sides and on the obscure videogame soundtrack Nintendo: White Knuckle Scorin’). The George Harrisonesque “I Need Love” (sung by Manning”) reiterates the composers’ capacity for melodic beauty, the goofy “Ignorance is Bliss” almost overdoses on whimsy, the countrified “I Don’t Believe You” (recorded by Ringo Starr) nods to the Monkees, and the glam rocking “Family Tree” bashes harder than anything the band had previously done. Any of these would have been worthy additions to the record, even if it pushed it into double album territory. It should also be noted that two of those demos, “Watchin’ the Rain” and “Worthless Heart,” date back to Sturmer and Manning’s tenure in ‘80s new wave combo Beatnik Beatch.

And that, alas, was it. Fortunately, the craft, imagination and sheer quality of this pair of albums, as well as the bandmembers’ subsequent activities, have led to a wide influence and ensured their legacy remains intact a quarter of a century since their original release.

Following the Spilt Milk tour, Sturmer and Manning’s partnership came to an end, and with it the group. Manning has had by far the most prolific career, touring and recording with Beck, Air and Cheap Trick, among many others; exploring electronic cheekiness in the Moog Cookbook and his remix project Malibu; forming the short-lived but generally excellent bands Imperial Drag (with Dover) and TV Eyes (with Falkner); co-creating the obscure faux-soundtrack oddity Logan’s Sanctuary (with Falkner and his other TV Eyes bandmate Brian Reitzell); and recording a pair of solo albums. Falkner has a mere handful of solo records, but includes the brilliant and highly acclaimed Can You Still Feel?, as well as pre- and post-Jellyfish membership in the Three O’Clock and the Grays and his own session career with Air, Brendan Benson, Eric Matthews, Daniel Johnston, Beck and others (most recently he’s served as Beck’s touring guitarist). Dover went on to front Imperial Drag and Slash’s Snakepit, play guitar for Alice Cooper and form his own project Sextus. Tim Smith has enjoyed a fecund session livelihood. Though the band’s focal point, Sturmer stepped permanently out of the spotlight once Jellyfish was over, writing and producing for Japanese pop duo Puffy AmiYumi (who also covered “Joining a Fan Club”) and various animated television shows, though he has done session work with everyone from Swedish power poppers the Merrymakers to country singer Brady Seals to Christian alt.rock act Switchfoot. Sturmer made a rare lead vocal appearance in 2006 on Alpacas Orgling, the debut (and so far only) LP from singer/songwriter Bleu’s Electric Light Orchestra homage L.E.O.

Below: speaking of homages, watch a live cover from the original Jellyfish lineup….

Leave a Reply