The influential power-pop band Jellyfish came on the scene in the early ’90s, just as grunge was in the ascendant. It’s no wonder that after just two albums – influential as they turned out to be – and a briefly successful touring career, they faded into obscurity. Now Omnivore is reissuing Bellybutton and Spilt Milk in comprehensive two-CD sets with remastered versions of the original albums along with dozens of demo and live tracks.
“Power pop” may be the best way to classify Jellyfish but it isn’t quite an adequate description for the ambitious, almost scarily creative team of Andy Sturmer and Roger Manning who crafted the band’s eclectic songs and stunning arrangements. It’s not wrong to detect influences from a pantheon of progenitors: The Beatles (indirectly), Queen, Supertramp, Squeeze, Big Star and Cheap Trick and any number of others. But during the brief heyday of Jellyfish, Sturmer and Manning succeeded with the help of their bandmates and producers in creating one of the crowning achievements of their era of pop music. Their sound and sensibility were very much their own.
Jellyfish’s 1990 debut, Bellybutton, was an impressive display of songcraft, each number with its own flavor. The band was as at home with the prog-rock of “The Man I Used to Be” as with the shimmery pop of “That Is Why,” as adept at the bouncy 1960s-style bubblegum of “Baby’s Coming Back” (subverted by the band’s typically sophisticated lyrics) as at the bossa nova of “Bedspring Kiss.”
Rounding out Disc 1 of the Bellybutton reissue are 10 live tracks showing that the band could indeed put across their complex arrangements in concert. Among the most impressive things about this are the spot-on vocal harmonies and the fact that lead singer Sturmer was also the drummer. There’s one song, the relatively mediocre “Mr. Late,” that never made it onto a studio album, and covers of Paul McCartney’s “Jet” and a rocking take on the infectiously groovy “Sugar and Spice” by The Archies. It’s enlightening to note this choice of songs – Jellyfish’s sensibility subsumed both the sweeping, classical-esque drama McCartney developed during the Wings era and the sugary confections whipped up in the late ’60s and early ’70s – in this case for a fictional cartoon band.
Disc 2 of Bellybutton is packed with demos including Sturmer and Manning’s first passes at most of the songs that appeared on the album. These make clear that the duo had worked out the details of the often intricate arrangements before they went into the studio on the record label’s dime and, as noted in the liner notes, they had full creative control so that their original conceptions appeared more or less note for note on the final release, aided mightily by producers Albhy Galuten and Jack Joseph Puig. There are also demos here of songs that didn’t make it onto the album, including the Gershwin-quoting “Deliver,” a rough-and-tumble tune called “Always Be My Girl,” and the uncharacteristic soft-rocker “Let This Dream Never End.” There’s also a demo for the sparkling “Bye Bye Bye” which appeared later on the follow-up album Spilt Milk, and a dip into psychedelia for a cover of Donovan’s classic “Season of the Witch.”
Jellyfish reached its apex with its second and final studio album, Spilt Milk, in 1993. Again produced with the help of Galuten and Puig, and with a new lineup of bandmates behind Sturmer and Manning, the album was a much more contiguous whole, conceived as a top-to-bottom opus. It took months to record at a shocking cost of $600,000 (no wonder their relationship with their label came to an end after that). But it was, as Ken Sharp writes in the new liner notes, “a giant leap forward artistically and a brilliant masterstroke in terms of quality of songwriting, musicianship, production, and arrangements.”
Disc 1 also includes eight demos of songs that never appeared on a Jellyfish studio album. Most were written for (and one, “I Don’t Believe You,” appeared on) Ringo Starr’s Time Takes Time album. Highlights among these are “Watchin’ the Rain,” which reminds me of Crowded House, and the Beatlesque “Long Time Ago.” Another top-notch pop song is one written for Cheap Trick’s Robin Zander. Taken together, the tracks show off an enviable ability to craft songs for specific artists, and it’s hard to imagine most as Jellyfish songs.
Disc 2 contains demos of most of the songs from the album, but the best bonus here are acoustic versions of three of the band’s biggest songs, recorded for Philadelphia’s World Cafe radio show in 1993. These takes on “That Is Why,” “The Ghost at Number One,” and “Joining a Fan Club” prove, if they needed proving, two things: the songs are great whatever the arrangement; and these guys excelled in a stripped-down live setting as well as on stage with the full band. “Russian Hill,” Spilt Milk‘s smooth acoustic ballad, which suggests the softer side of Led Zeppelin, gave an indication of Jellyfish’s skill in the acoustic-instrument universe. These three tracks prove it beyond a doubt.
The disc closes with a “Fan Club Message” the band put out from the studio where they were recording Spilt Milk, the last major hurrah of their brief career. Its fuzzy piano version of “” is kind of fun to hear, but the very presence of a “fan club message” reminds one that the days of an active Jellyfish fan club with more albums to look forward to were numbered. Those former members now have what is likely to be the closest thing to a definitive Jellyfish collection that will ever come out. And if they play it for their uninitiated friends, their numbers are sure to increase.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=B00IA1V9B0][amazon template=iframe image&asin=B00IA1VAJQ]