Jellyfish – Remasters (review)

Jellyfish remasters (Omnivore Recordings)

Bellybutton and  Spilt Milk 

I recently did an interview with original Jellyfish guitarist Jason Falkner, who posed the question:

“What if Jellyfish had dressed more like Guns n’ Roses”?

Axl, Slash & Co. looked like they just crawled of the gutter, while Jellyfish wore costumes straight out of Saturday morning cartoons.  The former had immense success, while the latter…well, the problem was, the goofy hats and colorful shirts confused a lot of listeners – were Jellyfish a novelty act?  All those nostalgic references – were they to be taken seriously?

As a fan who bought both of the band’s albums and saw them live, I was dumbfounded by their lack of commercial success.  But, even then, I thought the silly costumes weren’t necessary: their music could stand on its own – it was that good.

Well, their music is still that good, as two new reissues from Omnivore Recordings prove.    The label has just released the band’s two albums, Bellybutton and Spilt Milk, both with a treasure trove of bonus material.

Bellybutton arrived in 1990, just as the hair metal scene was in full swing.  Co-helmed by veteran producer Albhy Galuten, who knew something about pop perfection working with the Bee Gees; he gave the band a pristine, yet earthy sound.  Jellyfish was immediately labeled a “power pop” band, which isn’t entirely true.  Sure, “That is Why” has Beatlesque overtones.  But, tracks like “I Wanna Stay Home” and “Bedspring Kiss” are closer to Burt Bacharach than Cheap Trick.

The band also had a uncanny ability of inserting passing references into songs – take the Partridge Family homage at the end of “Baby’s Comin’ Back,” or the Beach Boys’ interlude in the middle of “The King is Half-Undressed.”

The original album was only ten songs and seems to go by quickly, begging for the repeat button.  And, despite being produced in 1990, it bears none of the big, echoey production that was common place during that time.

In addition to the original Bellybutton album, disc one also features 10 live tracks, which vary in sound quality, but ultimately show that Jellyfish were a fantastic, spirited live band that could recreate the sophisticated harmonies found in the studio (it is really cool to hear the band play the legendary Wembley Stadium – there is some justice after all) .  Disc two features demos of nine of the album’s tracks.  These versions are very similar to what would end up on the CD, minus a little polish.  Rounding out the set are seven unreleased songs, none of which are terribly memorable (an odd cover of Donovan’s “Season of the Witch” totally misses the mark).

The band would take three years and spend a whopping $600,000 on the followup, Spilt Milk. Not surprising, the album was an ambitious affair, from the opening, multi-layered vocals of “Hush” to the epic, six-minute closer, “Brighter Day.”  The tracks here were dense, yet no less enjoyable.  The references were still here too, from the “Jet” homage on “Joining a Fan Club” to the guitar lick from the Beach Boys’ “Cabinessence” on “Brighter Day.”

Even though the melodies were still catchy as hell, some of the song structures were so full of twists and turns, it sometimes bordered on Zappa strangeness (especially notable on the album’s first single, “The Ghost at Number One,” and the childlike “Sebrina, Paste and Plato”).   The band admits now that “New Mistake” should have been the lead off single – it’s a far more straight forward choice.  “My Best Friend,” an ode to masturbation, has a chorus that’s powered by percussion aped from Steely Dan’s “Do It Again.”

After the Spilt Milk original album, disc one is capped off by eight unreleased songs which are fantastic – any one of these could’ve made the final record – “Family Tree” is a great, Badfinger-inspired rocker, while “Worthless Heart” is an excellent, acoustic ballad.  To call these “demos” is misleading – these are fully-realized recordings.  Disc two features demos of the Spilt Milk songs – “Sebrina” in demo form has more of a Beach Boys’ feel, otherwise, once again, they are very faithful to the released versions.  The remainder of the disc features acoustic live performances which are quite good.

Both Deluxe Editions feature fine essays from Power Pop expert Ken Sharp, as well as track-by-track annotations by members of the band.  All of this adds up to the ultimate way to experience both of these fantastic albums.  —Tony Peters