The Joy of Jellyfish

Album Covers

In the ’90s, a resurgence of the power-pop took place as artists like Matthew Sweet, Velvet Crush and XTC took up where the Raspberries, Badfinger and Big Star had left off. (You could add that these latter bands were simply carrying the torch themselves for the guitar-driven and harmony-based songs of The Beatles, The Who, and The Hollies.) One of my favorites from the end of the millennium, however, is Jellyfish — a San Fran group featuring lead vocalist-drummer Andy Sturmer, keyboard wizard Roger Manning, and guitarist Jason Falkner at its core. Although their music is definitely less well-known to the casual listener (due in part to the shortness of their career), their music more than holds its own when held up to that of their contemporaries.

Their first album Bellybutton was released in 1990. Back then, many groups in power pop’s second wave wore their influences on their sleeves but Jellyfish took it even further. They were fully clothed in their influences. Manning’s and Sturmer’s delightful tunes are drenched in the style and earwig-laden hooks of ELO, Todd Rundgren, and of course, The Fab Four. Check out “All I Want Is Everything,” a catchy ode to rock stardom, then tell me that these guys aren’t doing their best Cheap Trick impression, even as they nod to John, Paul, George and Ringo in the lyrics: “I think I’d like to play guitar and be a Beatle… that’d be so swell…”

This freshman effort is full of clever lyrics, angelic harmonies and perfectly sync-ed up playing that feels like a fin de siecle homage to The Beatles’ best. I love hearing the Lennon-esque vocals on “She Still Loves Him” and the Harrisonian flourishes during the guitar solo on “Calling Sarah.” The key throughout though is that while you can hear the nods to XTC and The Move, for instance, Jellyfish’s carefully constructed songs tend to leap beyond their influences as well. Every song on Bellybutton pops: the exuberant “Baby’s Coming Back,” the sprightly “Now She Knows She’s Wrong,” the moodier “The King Is Half Undressed…” Listened as continuous play, the album continually surprises you with what comes next.

Falkner quit the band after the Bellybutton tour because his own songs weren’t making it to CD so Manning and Sturmer re-grouped in the studio with talented sidemen like Jon Brion and Lyle Workman for the band’s sophomore effort Spilt Milk (1993), unquestionably Jellyfish’s magnum opus — enhanced with elaborate production values and multi-layered instrumentation. From The Beach Boy harmonies of the opening track “Hush” to the Queen-esque power of “Joining a Fan Club,” Jellyfish came back at a whole other level, and seemed as comfortable executing a boisterous tune like “New Mistake” as they were with their more experimental tracks like “Russian Hill.” The album climaxes with the anthemic “Brighter Day,” which doubly serves as the record’s coda.

Read related post: Power Pop Is Alive and Well

Spilt Milk is a remarkable achievement but sadly it’s also the group’s final studio album, as tensions within the band caused a break-up in 1994. That didn’t stop the band’s music from showing up on compilation albums in the coming years, like Fan Club (2002), Best! (2006) and Stack-a-Tracks (2012) or even more recently via two live albums: Live at Bogart’s (2012) and Radio Jellyfish (2013). And so despite their brief official career, Jellyfish somehow lives on. How do you kill a Jellyfish anyway? Aren’t those things immortal?

– John Visconti

Photo Credit: Fair use album covers for Jellyfish.

PS. Where did Power Pop go after Jellyfish? Check out our post on the latest wave. Iggy Pop more your thing? Check out our piece on his last album Post Pop Depression.

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John Visconti is a lifelong music and movies aficionado with wide-ranging tastes, from The British Invasion and Motown, to the blues, a dash of jazz, on through to power pop, funk, retro soul, folk, bubblegum and metal. He digs film noir, screwball comedies, classic B movies, and Toho’s original Godzilla series. In the late 1980s, John was a writer and editor for the KISS fanzine Fire. A friend once called him “the human incarnation of an entertainment encyclopedia.” After long stints in the worlds of publishing and IT, he’s currently working in healthcare. You can check out his blog, John V's Eclectic Avenue at http://jveclectic.blogspot.com.

5 comments on “The Joy of Jellyfish

  1. Pete Brennan

    Loved them, but I also thought the amount of money they spent on production, compared to weak sales, also did them in.

  2. It’s a shame they found some commercial success right around the period of the decline of MTV as well as the second British Invasion and the decline of the great and powerful record companies that began to break up just like Ma Bell. If that weren’t the case, I’m sure they would have had money thrown at them for promotion as well as becoming mainstream.

    I was into Britpop at the time and will definitely give them a listen! Thanks for helping people discover their music.

  3. Rocco Clericuzio

    After being introduced to Jellyfish by a great friend of mine and fellow music lover, I instantly became hooked. I fell in love with all the influences they incorporated into their music as mentioned in this article. It’s too bad their career was short-lived. I would have loved to see how they would have developed and grown musically and talent-wise if they continued on.

    If you’re a fan of The Beatles, The Who, ELO, Cheap Trick and/or any of the other artists Jellyfish was influenced by, as mentioned in this article, Jellyfish is a must listen!!

  4. Mark Hudson

    Spilt Milk is indeed an unheralded masterpiece & an essential addition to any collection !

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