They say that stars that burn twice as bright burn half as long. I want to introduce you to a really amazing power-pop band from the 1990’s, but before I do I must warn you: they only put out two records. If you’re the kind of person that obsesses over really awesome shit that never got its proper due, maybe you should sit this one out. Jellyfish was a band that I grew up with and to this day I still love them and smile whenever I hear one of their songs. I’ve met precious few people who’ve even heard of them (or can remember them) and that’s a real shame because they put out two damn near perfect records.
A word about “power-pop.” I really feel stupid using that term and not just because it sounds like a super-caffeinated soft drink. In general, I really dislike the concept of “genre.” But I must admit that it does serve as a nice bit of short-hand when you’re trying to talk to people so I’m going to use the term “power-pop.” Power-pop is basically rock music that features strong lyrical hooks and big guitar riffs. Melodies and harmonies are also really important in power-pop. A lot of the British invasion-era rock could be considered power-pop, but for the most part the term is applied to bands that came after/were influenced by those bands. So The Beatles are not considered power-pop but Badfinger (who came later and are basically the same band) are power-pop.
Jellyfish was formed in 1989 in San Francisco, California. The band had several members over the years but the foundation of the band was two super-talented, multi-instrumentalists: Andy Sturmer and Roger Joseph Manning, Jr.* Andy was primarily the drummer and Roger played keyboards. For their first album, Roger and Andy were joined by bassist Chris Manning a duty that was also shared by Steven Shane McDonald (of Redd Kross-fame, another great power-pop band from this era) and guitarist Jason Falkner. To say that these lads had talent is the worst kind of understatement–there really were four geniuses in the band. And while that helped make the first Jellyfish album, BELLYBUTTON, an instant-classic…it also lead to a lot of tension.
BELLYBUTTON came out in 1990 and was met with moderate success. The album spawned three singles, “The King Is Half-Undressed,” “That Is Why,” and “Baby’s Coming Back.” Some quirky music videos and a funky day-glo image helped get people’s attention, though the band was never a true household name. BELLYBUTTON’s sound is one of lush harmonies and catchy-as-hell choruses. The Beatles and Beach Boys are all over this record (they even mention The Beatles by name in “All I Want Is Everything”). And while the band doesn’t ever quite go full-on psychedelic, they get close. It’s a bit difficult to say “this is what Jellyfish sounds like” because like late-period Beatles (and super-druggy Brian Wilson), Jellyfish experiment with different sounds and instruments.
Among the kaleidoscope of 1960’s-ish sounds there are are two really nice ballads, “I Wanna Stay Home” and “Calling Sarah.” “I Wanna Stay Home” in particular almost sounds like it belongs on a totally different record. It’s a very sincere song that’s about having to go even though you just want to say home. The very next song “She Still Loves Him” is a haunting tale about an abusive relationship, it’s a great song, with some really sharp lyrics and an awesome guitar solo…but it also feels very odd after “I Wanna Stay Home.” BELLYBUTTON, while a fantastic record, is not a unified work of art. Instead it’s more of an awesome Frankenstein’s Monster of a record, with a bunch of really awesome bits sown together. There are a ton of really nice little details that really don’t appreciate on the first few listens. Some of my favorites include: the nice trumpet part at the beginning of “Bedspring Kiss”, the faux-live effect/crowd sound on the Cheap Trick-like “All I Want Is Everything”**, and the dreamy piano noodling that plays before “She Still Loves Him.”
In 1993 the band put out their second album SPILT MILK. This album sadly did not feature most of the band from the first record–gone was everyone but Sturmer and Manning Jr. A new bassist, Tim Smith, was added to the mix along with a few session guitarists. Despite the change in personnel, I actually prefer SPILT MILK and think it’s the stronger of the two records. SPILT MILK is interesting because Jellyfish takes the 1960’s British-Pop aesthetics of BELLYBUTTON and apply a thick coating of Glam Rock. What you get is something that sounds like Queen-by-way-of-The Beatles. Oddly enough, despite losing their guitarists, SPILT MILK also has way better guitar parts/solos, though Roger Manning’s keyboards do wind up taking a more prominent role. SPILT MILK is full of such dualities: it’s a keyboard album with awesome guitars, dark and angry but has a playful song about masturbation (“He’s My Best Friend”).
The album opens with the quiet, lullaby-like “Hush” which ironically leads into the explosive “Joining A Fanclub.” I can’t say enough about how awesome “Joining A Fanclub” is. Ostensibly about the dangers of stardom and hero worship, the songs is a really headbangger. It’s the kind of song you hear while driving and it causes you to get a speeding ticket. Every time I hear it I think about Robert Downey Jr. (who at the time this song was written was constantly getting into trouble with the law). I also really love “New Mistake” with it’s twisty-lyrics about an “oops” pregnancy–the best part? At the end the baby grows up and marries a pop singer (because it’s time for her to make her “first mistake.”). This is the kind of song that keep me up at night it’s so awesome. I almost don’t believe it was crafted by mere mortals. I also can’t help but marvel at “The Ghost Of Number One” which seems to poke fun at the fact that the band knew that they weren’t going to reach the level of success that they deserved.
Like BELLYBUTTON, Jellyfish’s second record also features some interesting experimentation. I’m confident that I’d never been exposed to Klezmer music*** before I heard “Bye Bye Bye.” That song alone is worth the purchase price of the album, it’s simply a stunningly awesome song, and was definitely not something you heard on the radio in 1993 (or hell today for that matter). The album ends with the magnificent, circus-themed “Brighter Day.” The song is a fantastic way to close the record and unfortunately the recording career of Jellyfish. And when it ends all you want to do is start the whole thing over again.
So what happened? Well a lack of success and bruised egos led Jellyfish to die an unglamorous death, alone and relatively unmourned. Jason Falkner and Roger Joseph Manning, Jr. both have had relatively successful solo-careers (Falkner in particular has recorded some amazing records). Lead-singer Andy Sturmer gave up being in bands and is how a producer. Over the years the band has developed a somewhat cult-following online. I wrote my one and only Wikipedia entry in 2006 when a greatest-hits compilation called BEST! was released. It’s not a very long article, more like an album stub but for some reason I felt compelled to write it. Jellyfish is one of those bands I simply can’t imagine living without and it bums me out that so few people are aware of them. I highly, highly recommend Jellyfish.
*Fun fact, the “Jr.” had to be added to Roger’s professional name because it turned out there already WAS a semi-not-really famous musician named Roger Joseph Manning. What are the chances of such a thing? Now go win that super-obscure power-pop bar-trivia.
**It sounds like LIVE AT BUDOKAN, get it?
***Jewish Eastern European music. It’s as awesome as it sounds.