Tag Archives: SPILT MILK

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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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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Aping The Beach Boys

 

Last month, Ben Folds Five released their first new studio album since 1999.   After reading a few favorable-to-glowing reviews, I decided to check out the new album despite being a casual fan of the group.  To my great joy, THE SOUND OF THE LIFE OF THE MIND is a really fantastic album that’s chock full of really good pop songs, I encourage you to seek it out.

The opposite of “Rire and Rain” but not PET SOUNDS.

One song, though, really stood out to me: the second track “Michael Praytor, Five Years Later.”  The song, which begins with drums and very familiar-sounding vocal harmonies instantly made me think of Jellyfish.  Particularly their second album SPILT MILK which my mom got me into durin the 1990’s.  Hypnotized, I found myself listening to the song over and over.

Then, around the 30th listen or so, I had a realization: The Beach Boys.  In this modern age, where artists are paying homage to other artists who were paying tribute to other artists, it can be tricky to trace the musical genealogy of a group or song .  Now that I’ve thought abou it, it’s obvious to me that on “Michael Praytor, Five Years Later”  the band is clearly doing something that goes back to the 1960’s: they’re aping The Beach Boys.

The Beach Boys, as I’m fond of reminding you all, were pioneers in rock music and highly influential.  The band has a stuffy/boring reputation among many young people today, but nothing could be further from the truth.  I’ve written before about my deep love of PET SOUNDS, but beyond that monumental album, the band’s influence can be felt today.  Being such a cultural-touchstone, other bands have been making sly (and sometimes not so sly) references to The Beach Boys in their work.  That this has been going on literally since they achieved their initial popularity in the 1960’s only serves to underscore just how damn important they were/are as a band.

We don’t know how lucky we are, boys.

The first time I can remember thinking “this band is making fun/referencing The Beach Boys” was when I heard The Beatles self-titled double album THE BEATLES (also known as the “White Album”).  The first song of the first album is “Back in the USS,” which is a direct parody of “California Girls.”  The Beach Boy-esque backing vocals are a perfect copy of The Beach Boys, but more than that The Beatles also poke fun at the band’s Apple-Pie/Baseball American-ness with their song’s Soviet Union-theme.  The Beatles were not the first, and they were not the last to ape The Beach Boys however.

Growing up, another band that I was exposed via my parents was REM.  I remember to practically wearing out their cassette of OUT OF TIME when it came out in 1991.  I had no idea what any of the songs were about, but I really liked them all, in particular the fourth track “Near Wild Heaven.”  The song, co-written and sung by bassist Mike Mills, is pretty much a spot-on WILD HONEY-era Beach Boys song.  And like “Back in the USSR,” it’s not the just vocal arrangement that’s referential to the Beach Boys, the lyrics and chords are also reminiscent of the band.  Looking back on it now, I think it’s weird that one of my all-time favorite REM songs is really just them riffing ironically on The Beach Boys. 

Not near enough…

English rockers XTC recorded a series of albums as their alter-egos The Dukes of Stratosphear and recorded “Pale and Precious,” a song that channels Wilson’s PET SOUNDS and SMILE-era lush production so well it borderlines on plagiarism. I feel weird mentioning the song because The Dukes were sort of a jokey-novelty, but “Pale and Precious” is too good to ignore.  Many people think these over-the-top homages are cheap, easy ripoffs but the amount of detail and knowledge required to create what essentially amounts to a “lost” Beach Boys song is incredible.  Anyone who willing to disregard the artistic merits of “Pale and Precious” can should try their hand at writing such a loving tribute–I have a feeling it’s harder than Andy Partridge makes it look.

Alt-rockers Everclear started their third album, SO MUCH FOR THE AFTERGLOW, with a massive Beach Boys nod on the album’s title track “So Much For The Afterglow.”  The song has an opening so Beach Boy-esque that when it comes on when I shuffle my iTunes I always mistake it for an actual Beach Boys song.  Jellyfish likewise opened their second album, the before-mentioned SPILT MILK, with “Hush” a lovely lullaby that exists thanks to The Beach Boys.

Sounds like The Beach Boys drunk on everclear.

Much like there are for The Beatles, there are a large contingent of modern bands who’s primary influence is The Beach Boys.  I vividly recall when California rockers Rooney broke onto the scene and were hailed by (the then-still somewhat musical) MTV as the “modern Beach Boys.”  The comparison wasn’t completely off-base, though I don’t think Rooney is as strongly connected to The Beach Boys as say,  South Carolina rockers The Explorers Club.   The Explorer’s Club have managed to cultivate a small, but growing fanbase with their supremely Beach Boys-like pop sound.  I  particularly enjoy their song “Run Run Run” of their most recent album GRAND HOTEL, which sounds like an eerily like an early 1970’s Beach Boy number.

This is a fantastic album, you should check it out.

If imitation truly is the sincerest form of flattery, then Brian Wilson & Company must feel very flattered indeed.  It’s one thing to write a good song, it’s another thing to invent a unique style that others copy and build upon.  Below is a Spotify-playlist I’ve started for this interesting sub-sub-sub-genre of music, if you are a Spotify user please feel free to add songs you think fit into the category of Aping The Beach Boys. I’d be interested to see how massive the list can get.

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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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