Tag Archives: Power-Pop

ROCK ‘N READ: Brighter Day: A Jellyfish Story

One of the most influential pop bands of the last thirty years, Jellyfish is one of those bands that barely registered a blip but has a massive cult following. I’ve been saying for years that someone should write a book about them, well now someone has! Craig Dorfman’s book Brighter Day: A Jellyfish Story is a slim, but not unsubstantial, volume that records the band’s history. From the humble childhood beginnings of Roger Joseph Manning, Jr. and Andy Sturmer to the dizzying production of the band’s seminal album SPILT MILK all the way to the present with a “where are they now?” segment that ties up the narrative of this legendary pop band.

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The band only recorded two albums, 1990’s BELLYBUTTON, and 1993’s SPILT MILK, but the band’s legacy lives on. When I started Dorfman’s book, I was looking forward to finally discovering three things: 1. What happened/why did they break up? 2. What are the band members doing today? And 3. How did an overlooked 90’s act wind up being so influential? Dorfman, who interviewed all the major players in the Jellyfish story, does a good job answering my first two questions (mostly, I’ll get that my beef with #2 in a moment). But as I finished Brighter Day I found myself still unable wrap my mind around their lasting legacy. By all rights, Jellyfish should be household names and expect for a few bright spots on the Internet; they aren’t. Dorfman’s book doesn’t shed any light onto how Jellyfish ended up influencing so many fantastic pop bands that came after them. I thought perhaps that it was music critics who kept the band’s memory alive, but Dorfman’s book details the numerous brutal reviews of contemporary publications for the band. While there were some positive reviews, my take away from Brighter Day was that critical reception to the band during their active years was mixed at best.

I often sit and wonder about what happens to members of bands I love after the band calls it quits. I had hoped to get a nice accounting of what the members of Jellyfish had been up to. I’ve done research over the years (and have all the solo albums that there are) but I just couldn’t wrap my mind around how these Gods of pop music had, for the most part, just quietly slipped into obscurity. I knew that a band like Jellyfish hadn’t made millionaires out of them, so how were they supporting themselves? Dorfman’s book provides answers to this question: they work behind-the-scenes in the music industry or as hired guns for more popular artists. Brighter Day gives the answers I was seeking, but I wished more details were given about the post-Jellyfish careers of the various band members. Only because I know we’re never going to get a Jason Falkner book (sadly).

Brighter Day is written in a way that presents many pivotal moments and conversations like a novel would. Dorfman acknowledges at the beginning of the book that these conversations are not to to be taken literally and that some creative license was taken. This bothered me a bit at first, and I found myself wishing that Dorfman’s book was an oral history like The Beatles Anthology, but when I reached the end and read the acknowledgments page, I realized that getting all the parties involved in Jellyfish to talk must have been a massive undertaking. The idea of recording them and then parsing out a narrative would have been too great an undertaking. Still, the book’s central conceit, which Jellyfish was a vehicle for Sturmer and Manning’s songs and that meant the contributions of the other band members was very limited, thus creating a great source of tension, is somewhat underplayed. Dorfman repeats over and over that Manning refused to stick up for the various guitarists the band went through because he didn’t want to betray Sturmer as he had by writing commercial jingles when they were just starting out. This idea is tirelessly repeated throughout the book, and while I’m sure it’s not an incorrect assertion, I find it hard to believe that Manning’s motives were so simple. Andy Sturmer’s personality quirks are also mentioned, but it feels as though there’s more to the story than what Dorfman presents. Sturmer sounds like a bit of an asshole and perhaps on the spectrum maybe? None of this is explored. I suppose that is the price one has to pay to get official input from the band.

Don’t get me wrong, this is a great book, and I’m so glad that it exists. Dorfman should be praised for doing what so many of us thought about and recognized should be done but did not have the will to do ourselves. Dorfman should be forever blessed for getting this story written before any of the principal players died. And considering how short the life of Jellyfish was, it’s amazing that Brighter Day has so much content. This book has got me seriously thinking about Jellyfish again, which in a way is like having Jellyfish back. I’m also re-listening to the last few Jason Falkner albums and trying to hunt up my copy of Manning’s CATNIP DYNAMITE. Sturmer’s lack of solo material isn’t explained in the book either, which is disappointing (though he hints that the singer does record at home and that perhaps some of this material will see the light of day). Brighter Day is a book for hardcore “Jellyheads” who’ve listened to every outtake and b-side, who’ve bought the boxset and the live albums, the ones who’ve listened to the arty solo albums and studied the music videos for decades. Everyone else should seek out the band’s seminal dual albums to join the rest of us in pop nirvana.

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Self’s Cover of “What A Fool Believes” Is No Joke

I was trolling around the Internet a few weeks ago and stumbled upon a super-cool cover of The Doobie Brothers classic “What A Fool Believes” by a band called Self. What makes this cover so interesting is that the band takes the Doobie’s funky groove and spins it as a power-pop song. Adding an extra layer of sugary charm, the band performs the song on toy instruments. This works much better than you’d think. Apparently, the band put out an entire album of songs performed on toy instruments called GIZMODGERY back in 2000. I guess this sort of thing would be considered “twee” and should make me roll my eyes harder than Liz Lemon, but for whatever reason, this works for me.

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Ugh, this is so “twee.”

There’s a very Beck-like track on GIZMODGERY called “Trunk Fulla Amps” that is also worth checking out if you’re interested. I don’t know why I’d never heard of Self until recently, though that name surely couldn’t have helped their cause. The band seems to consist of Mike Mahaffey, so I suppose the name is a bit of a joke about the band really being one person? But then I see other names on the album credits, so it’s not strictly a solo project…so who knows. I do know that Mike should have dubbed his band Self (band) because that’s how one as to search for them online. I ran into a similar situation recently while searching for more Loco Ono music. Apparently, that name is popular with a bunch of small-time bands (of varying quality).

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But I digress, “What A Fool Believes” is a great song made even better by the twinkling daycare sensibility of Self. This is exactly the sort of thing I expect from a good cover song, in that it’s not a direct copy. The song isn’t necessarily elevated into something greater than the original, instead Self’s cover is a pleasant, albeit wacky, sideways shift. Incidentally, my opinion of The Doobie Brothers has shifted over the years, thanks in large part to my love of a certain white-haired singer from St. Louis. Perhaps the band is due a larger, more in-depth examination in the weeks and months ahead?

Anyway, am I crazy or is this a really cool cover? Are you a fan of Self (the band)? Chime in below in the comments.

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USE YOUR WEAPONS by Valley Lodge

Valley Lodge Band Use Your WeaponsValley lodge came to my attention last week via podcaster Dave Slusher.  Prior to that, I’d never heard of the band but was quickly impressed with their song “Go.” I looked them up online, and it turns out Valley Lodge has a pretty impressive pedigree. The band formed in 2005 and features members from such diverse acts as Satanicide, Sense Field, Sons of Elvis, Cobra Verde, and Walk Mink.  The Cobra Verde connection really piqued my interested because that’s a band that has ties to Guided By Voices, one of my all-time favorite bands.  So how had they escaped my Sauron-like gaze for so long?  Well Valley Lodge, like most power-poppers today, is more famous in Japan than they are here in the States.

I love a really catchy, stupidly simple song.  For me that’s the essence of power-pop: taking something pretty basic and making it infectious.  Valley Lodge has crafted one heck of an earworm with their song “Go.”  It’s goofy but incredibly catchy and I’ve been unable to go a day without listening to it at least once this past week.  Once I got over the initial sugar rush of “Go,” I decided to check out the rest of the band’s latest album.  Would the rest of USE YOUR WEAPONS manage to live up to that first song?  Being a “glass half empty” guy, I was certain the rest of the album would be downhill after such a stellar opening track.

Thankfully I was wrong, USE YOUR WEAPONS is a solid album.  Less syrupy than you’d expect after hearing “Go,” USE YOUR WEAPONS pays tribute to British invasion-era pop but with a dash of snarky-grit.  The band compares favorably to California rockers TSAR, who also inject a whole lotta fun into their hooky, sometimes-dark songs.  Valley Lodge, like all great power-pop bands, owes a lot to Big Star whose influence can be felt throughout the record, especially on “Make Up Your Mind.”

Lead singer Dave Hill is a comedian as well as writer/blogger, so it’s unsurprising that Valley Lodge’s songs are funny, but don’t mistake the mistake of writing the band off as a joke—these songs seriously rock.  Even though USE YOUR WEAPONS is fun, there’s a darkness peaking out from the corners on a few of the albums tracks, especially on “Pretty Thing” and “Waiting in the Rain.”

Not everything on USE YOUR WEAPONS is perfect; I didn’t care for the semi-grating bubblegum of “Gimmie Gimmie” which is a shame because it has some great guitar work.   I also think that the band’s sound feels only partially formed, and that the songs have a disjointed quality, as though they were cobbled together from a couple of different bands rather than one.  That said, I’m really glad I found this band and look forward to exploring their back catalogue.  I’d say if you were intrigued by “Go” you should definitely check out the rest of USE YOUR WEAPONS.

A fun throwback, I’d definitely recommend Valley Lodge’s USE YOUR WEAPONS for fans of Big Star, The Raspberries, and Fountains of Wayne.

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“Go” by Valley Lodge

The postings have kinda fallen off here at Defending Axl Rose, and for that I’m sorry.  I’ve been busy working a new job, tinkering with a novel I started writing in January, and writing concert previews for a Colorado fashion/culture webzine, 303 Magazine.

But fear not, despite a fuller-than-usual plate, I have been rocking out to new music.  I was recently turned onto Valley Lodge, a delightfully crunchy power-pop outfit out of New York.  Their latest album, USE YOUR WEAPONS, is in heavy rotation here at the D.A.R. compound.  The first track “Go” is ridiculous and ridiculously good.  Seriously, I defy you to hear this song and not smile…and tap your foot.

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I plan on writing a full album review this weekend, but in the meantime, why not get the jump on all your friends and get familiar with Valley Lodge? This is serious power-pop for pop-loving people.

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“What You Do To Me”: Potent, Perfect Power Pop!

It wasn’t until the mid-1990’s that power pop entered my life*.   Growing up listening to 60’s era British Invasion rock bands I was primed to love love power pop.  The genre with its reverence to that period of rock music struck a major nerve with me.  Essentially a cleaner, modern continuation of British Invasion rock, power pop is a big licks and killer hooks.  Its tons of fun without being sticky bubblegum, loud but lacking a hard edge, power pop is pop music on steroids.
Perfect Power Pop People!

Perfect Power Pop People!

There are plenty of great power pop bands, both of yesteryear and today, but none of them can match Teenage Fanclub for purity.  Many bands skirt the edges of power pop, but Teenage Fanclub are 100% pure, uncut power pop.  Seriously, if you’ve never listened to power pop you’d be wise to start by listening to half a Teenage Fanclub song…or cut it with baby formula.  At the risk of sending potential power poppers into overdoses, I’d recommend you start with “What You Do To Me.”  The world is full of pop songs, but “What You Do To Me” is in a class all by itself.

The song dwells innocently enough on the band’s third album, BANDWAGONESQUE, which was released in 1991.  A bare bones, almost ludicrously simple love song, “What You Do To Me” is two minutes and one second of bliss.  The song has a great, crunchy guitar riff and a lyrically hook that comprises 98% of the song. It’s the kind of song you listen to and say “I could write this stuff!” because Teenage Fanclub makes it look that easy.  But it’s not that easy, or everyone would be doing it, right?  I think that effortlessness is what separates the  great from truly amazing. And Teenage Fanclub are truly amazing.

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The song is basic its brevity manages to keeps it from being overly repetitive, achieving a miraculously high level of infectiousness while managing to avoid being tiresome.  With “What You Do To Me,” Teenage Fanclub captures the soaring wonder of love with none icky, complicated stuff like heartbreak.  Even though it’s from 1991, the song sounds like it could have been recorded yesterday.  And yet, I don’t think it would sound out of place on The Beatles first album, MEET THE BEATLES.

All of BANDWAGONESQUE is amazing, potent power pop, but the album’s crowning glory is “What You Do To Me.”  One listen, and you’ll have it in your head all day.

*Yes, I’m going to keep referencing Jellyfish until you give up and give them a listen. 
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New Jellyfish Live Album Released Today

All I want for Christmas this year is Omnivore Record’s Jellyfish live album RADIO JELLYFISH.  Jellyfish were a super-talented, super-overlooked power-pop band from the mid-1990’s.  The band has built up a massive cult following over the years, which isn’t a surprise once you give a listen to either BELLYBUTTON or SPILT MILK.

Someone please buy this for me!

Someone please buy this for me!

Omnivore Records has been slowly giving us what we’ve all wanted: new Jellyfish releases.  They released both of the band’s albums sans-vocals earlier in the year…but this live record is on a whole other level.  RADIO JELLYFISH contains ten acoustic live tracks recorded in 1993 during the band’s SPILT MILK tour.  Of the album’s ten tracks, only one has been previously released. This is not the first Jellyfish live album, that would be LIVE AT BOGARTS which was recently released, but RADIO JELLYFISH being 100% acoustic really intrigues me.

If you’re a fan, check out the label’s trailer for the record and then run over to Omnivore’s website and order your copy.  I guarantee that this thing will sell-out quickly.

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TSAR Returns with THE DARK STUFF Ep!

If there’s one thing that I love, it’s finding out that a band I really love has put out new music.  But what I love even more is when a band I’ve completely written off as “disbanded” returns with new music. LA rockers TSAR put out two phenomenal albums that really didn’t get the attention they deserved.

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Their self-titled debut album is more than worthy of a CLASSIC ALBUMS REVISITED post and their last record, BAND GIRLS MONEY was worthy follow-up that proved the band wasn’t a fluke.  But then something happened, I don’t know because I’m not in LA and I don’t follow that scene…but TSAR went away.  Then, a few days ago, I was prepping my iPhone for a trip and what do I see on Spotify? Brand-spanking new TSAR music.

THE DARK STUFF is an Ep of five songs; all killer, no filler power-pop perfection.  Upon first listen, I was surprised at how dark THE DARK STUFF really is.  Sure, the music is still sugary and fun; but TSAR aren’t pulling any punches–these songs have a real bite to them.  The first song, “Punctual Alcoholic” is a demented, spooky song that appropriately name-checks Stephen King.  The phrase punctual alcoholic  is one of those really good TSAR-isms that I’ve been missing over the last few years.  

Despite being really well-produced, the song was a bit of shock in that it wasn’t as hyper-produced as the songs from BAND GIRLS MONEY.  It’s a really good, really catchy song that instantly reminded me why I love this band.

The second track, “Police Station” is a more straight-forward rocker and sounded more akin to the songs from the band’s last album, but toned down and more thoughtful.  I especially like the reference’s to “Teen Wizards,” another of the band’s songs.  “Little Woman” returns to the darker, melodic quality that gives the Ep it’s name.

The best song on THE DARK STUFF is the last track, “Something Bad Happened To Me.”  Like “Punctual Alcoholic,” it’s more restrained than the band’s previous album but edgier.  It’s like a haunted-house where the music is provided by Cheap Trick by way of George Harrison, The Cars, and Steely Dan.  It’s a very cool, multi-faceted song that seamlessly morphs from acoustic noodle to electric monster.

TSAR is still a great power pop band, but with THE DARK STUFF the band seems to be moving away from the endless-partyrock sensability and more textured, mature rock.  I didn’t think it would be possible for TSAR to come back and actually be more interesting than they already were, but with THE DARK STUFF the band has proven that not only are they back but they’re better than ever.  I only hope that we don’t have to wait long for the full album.

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Your Next Favorite Band: Jellyfish

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.

BELLYBUTTON-era Jellyfish. Awesome musicians with terrible fashion sense.

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. 

 

ENDNOTES:

*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. 

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