With the long-anticipated deluxe reissues of Jellyfish’s two studio albums finally here, the label has set a high bar for sheer pop ecstasy. While the band is often tagged as “power pop” – which is not altogether inaccurate – these two 2-CD sets make a strong case that Jellyfish was so much more. In his liner notes for this deluxe revival of 1990 debut Bellybutton (OVCD-5), author Ken Sharp points out that “everyone from Queen to Henry Mancini, ABBA to sprawling prog-rock, and KISS to ELO was fair game…” and member Roger Manning concurs: “I was as inspired by Burt Bacharach as I was by The Sweet, as I was The Smiths or Prefab Sprout or Black Flag.” Certainly some of those influences are more evident than others on these two records, but one thing is abundantly clear: Jellyfish knew how to distill the best of the past to create a retro-alternative soundtrack for the 1990s…and beyond.
Formed in the San Francisco Bay Area by singer/drummer Andy Sturmer and keyboardist Roger Joseph Manning, Jr., both late of Beatnik Beach, Jellyfish initially featured Manning’s brother Chris on bass and Jason Falkner of The Three O’Clock on guitar. Bellybutton yielded a modest hit in the form of the single “Baby’s Coming Back,” but while the single was sweet, band relations weren’t. Chris Manning and Jason Falkner would depart the band after the completion of its first tour. (A document of the group in action can be heard on the splendid 2012 Live at Bogart’s, also from Omnivore.) But the 10 tracks the original group left behind speak volumes for the quartet’s musical compatibility as well as for the pop songwriting acumen of Sturmer and Roger Manning.
The string orchestration, funereal organ and bluesy piano gracing the anguished opener “The Man I Used to Be” sets the tone for, and encapsulates the unpredictability of, a musical journey quite unlike anything else produced in 1990. Bellybutton is rich with tight, infectious nuggets like “Baby’s Coming Back” and “Now She Knows She’s Wrong,” with melodies that linger long after the album has departed your CD player, but there’s a hint of the unexpected in almost every cut here. Like a tour through your cool best friend’s record collection, you’ll find a bossa nova (“Bedspring Kiss,” which the liner notes reveal was inspired by Simon and Garfunkel’s “So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright”), a pretty mid-tempo ballad (“I Wanna Stay Home,” featuring the trumpet of Chuck Findley), a slice of timeless pure pop (“The King is Half-Undressed,” which melds all-out Who-style power chords with harmonies redolent of CSN or 1970s-era Beach Boys and tops it all off with bubblegum-style background vocals). The bubbly melodies on Bellybutton are often ironic counterpoint to the melancholy lyrics, further adding to the album’s dimension.
The melodic “That is Why” calls to mind The Beatles and their progeny – Badfinger, The Raspberries, etc. – in subtly updated fashion so as not to be rendered as mere pastiche. That said, it’s hard not to detect John, Paul, George and Ringo’s influence in the vocals of the dark “She Still Loves Him” (which incorporates both elegant acoustic piano and a searing guitar solo!). The Fabs even warrant a mention in the bright rocker “All I Want is Everything.”
Bellybutton has been expanded with a generous 26 bonus tracks spread across both discs of the 2-CD set. These have been drawn from various EPs, singles, and the 2002 limited edition Fan Club collection. Among these are demo and live versions of both released and unreleased tracks, plus covers of favorites from Paul McCartney & Wings (“Jet,” introduced as “arguably the sexiest song ever written”), Donovan (“Season of the Witch,” with a twist of Stephen Stills’ “For What It’s Worth”) and even The Archies (Ron Dante and Gene Allan’s “Sugar and Spice,” not the Tony Hatch song popularized by The Searchers). The Bellybutton Demos, consisting of 16 demos found on Disc 2 of the deluxe edition CD, will also be released as a digital-only standalone set.
The eleven live tracks on Disc One, from Los Angeles, San Francisco and London, aren’t radically different from their studio counterparts. But they’re high on energy, and the fun covers that pepper the proceedings are worth the price of admission. The demos reveal that Messrs. Manning, Sturmer and Falkner generally had a song’s structure, feel and even the general instrumentation in place before recording the final version. Even if these tracks could likely have been released as an album, credit goes to veteran producer (and Barry Gibb collaborator) Albhy Galuten and engineer/co-producer Jack Joseph Puig for knowing what to enhance, what to drop, and what to leave in raw form in crafting the more polished album versions. (The demo of “Calling Sarah” features Beatle-esque cries of “yeah, yeah, yeah!” that Galuten didn’t love. They didn’t make the final recording.) A few demos didn’t make the original album at all, including the Gershwin-quoting oom-pah tune “Deliver,” the toy piano-adorned “Queen of the U.S.A.” and the soft-rock ballad “Let This Dream Never End.” One demo here, “Bye Bye Bye,” would make its way to Jellyfish’s next LP.
Andy Sturmer and Roger Manning were joined by returning producers Galuten and Puig for Jellyfish’s belated sophomore outing, 1993’s Spilt Milk (OVCD-6) plus a rotating cast of musicians including Jon Brion and Lyle Workman on guitars, and Hall and Oates’ associate T-Bone Wolk and Tim Smith handled bass. The album’s expansive, widescreen sound should have signaled a new beginning, but the band called it a day not long after finishing a tour to promote the record. As swansongs go, though, it’s a tough one to beat. “We were heavily inspired by arrangers from the ‘60s, like Burt Bacharach and Henry Mancini, who were combining the best of both worlds – taking classic orchestration and combining it with really great fuzz guitar.” With inspirations like that, how could a band go wrong? And so, with Spilt Milk, Jellyfish took full advantage of the possibilities of the recording studio while furthering their mission of creating modern pop indebted to the past.
That Jellyfish intended to push the envelope was clear from the haunting a cappella opening, “Hush.” Think The Beach Boys meet Queen; in fact, Spilt Milk would ultimately owe much to the spirit of Freddie Mercury and company. Another more pronounced influence on Spilt seemed to be Big Star. (In the liner notes to Bellybutton, Manning admits, “Yeah, we listened to a lot of Big Star and Cheap Trick” before adding “…and 500 other things, too!”) There’s a brash, primal, Chris Bell-esque power to the acerbic “Joining a Fan Club” which like the album’s first single “The Ghost at Number One” takes aim at music’s increasingly corporate culture. The Queen flourishes are evident in its aggressive vocals and musical attack, while “All is Forgiven” is even harder and heavier with its slashing guitar. But “New Mistake” might best position Jellyfish as the Big Star of the 1990s as it marries an intricate musical track with quirky, impressionistic lyrics that keep it from being too accessible. Yet it still lodges itself in the brain nonetheless, and per Sharp’s notes, both Manning and Sturmer consider the song to be Jellyfish’s finest hour.
Spilt Milk truly is all over the place, with just the right amount of pure quirk. “Sebrina, Paste and Plato” was the band’s attempt at a 2-1/2 minute “rock opera” with its attendant shifts in style and sound; “Bye Bye Bye” (rescued from the Bellybutton demos) is catchy cabaret-pop. The ode to self-pleasure “He’s My Best Friend” was inspired by the musical eccentricities of the great Harry Nilsson. (Harry’s more benign “Best Friend,” of course, was the theme song to television’s The Courtship of Eddie’s Father.) The album isn’t without its softer moments, either, such as the dreamy “Russian Hill.”
The 25 bonus tracks here (all culled from previous releases) encompass more elaborate demos, live cuts and one-offs such as a cover of Nilsson’s “Think About Your Troubles” for all-star tribute album For the Love of Harry or the kooky Super Mario Bros. tribute “Ignorance is Bliss” from the 1991 Nintendo White Knuckle Scorin’ compilation. Of the material otherwise unrecorded by Jellyfish, highlights include “Family Tree” with its Raspberries riff, the attractive, McCartney-esque “Watchin’ the Rain” (with a synth line just crying to be played on a trumpet or flugelhorn), and the straightforward pop of “I Need Love,” “I Don’t Believe You” and “Long Time Ago.” The latter track could practically pass as the work of the famed Wrecking Crew. Ironically, some of these tracks might have fared well as singles, as they’re a bit more lyrically direct and immediately accessible than some of the final tracks on Spilt Milk.
Though another studio album never materialized, the Jellyfish legend grew over the years. The comprehensive rarities box set Fan Club was released independently in 2002, and a “best-of” compilation was released in 2006. The next year, the U.K. band McFly revived “Baby’s Coming Back” and it soared up the charts in England. Omnivore has long championed the band through releases like Live at Bogart’s, Stack-a-Tracks, Radio Jellyfish, and a reissue of subsequent Falkner/Manning project TV Eyes, all of which have set the stage for these deluxe reissues.
Produced by Omnivore’s Cheryl Pawelski and Lee Lodyga, these editions are undoubtedly the definitive statements on these two beloved cult albums. Attractive digipaks and beautifully designed booklets compliments of Greg Allen make these essential, as does the remastering by Gavin Lurssen and Reuben Cohen. In short, these albums have never sounded better. Ken Sharp’s essays and the track-by-track annotations from the band members are also indispensable. (Those track-by-track notes for the original album sequences are so entertaining that one wishes Manning, Sturmer and Falkner had done the same for the bonus tracks!)
One famous Jellyfish song goes, “All I want is everything!” If everything is impossible, these two editions come damn near close. In a perfect world, these reissues would finally take Jellyfish to No. 1, just like that ghost…
You can order Bellybutton and Spilt Milk below: