My Ode to Jellyfish, Pt. 2

I wrote the following article for Youthquake magazine in 2004, but it still retains its sugary-sweet goodness.

Crying Over Spilt Milk

Jellyfish had finally arrived. The band was being mentioned in the same sentence as the Beatles, and Sturmer and Manning were being compared to Lennon and McCartney.

And it drove them crazy.

“I hate the word ‘Beatlesque’ with a passion,” Sturmer told Daily Variety. “We get hit with that tag all the time, and I feel that it’s extremely inaccurate.” Nevertheless, the comparisons were inevitable. In a sense, Bellybutton was Jellyfish’s Revolver – an ambitious album that gave hints of greatness and laid the stage for bigger and better things. After a long tour, the group felt that it was time for them to make their Sgt. Pepper.

But before they could start, the band quickly began to disintegrate. The tour had taken its toll; Roger’s brother Chris decided that being a rock star was not for him and left. Jason Falkner became dissatisfied with his lack of input in the songwriting process (George Harrison, anyone?) and quit the group to pursue a solo career. That left Roger Manning and Sturmer, who were left to pick up the pieces. “We were very tired,” Sturmer told Billboard magazine. “By the time we started doing demos for the next record, everybody was totally stressed out.” A band was hastily thrown together to record the album. Bassist Tim Smith eventually became a regular; other musicians such as Eric Dover, Jon Brion and Lyle Workman filled in on the recording sessions and subsequent tour.

Not a good way to start an album. To make matters worse, the record took an agonizing six months to record. Take after retake, tracks overdubbed on top of tracks, the process was glacial. Paul McCartney, the ultimate perfectionist, would have been envious of such obsessive-compulsive recording.

When Spilt Milk was released in February 1993, critics didn’t know what comparison to make anymore. Jellyfish, in a sense, had out-Beatled the Beatles. It was Queen meets ELO meets Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys meets 10cc – all of their icons rolled into one album. But then there was that circus music. And the kids’ songs. And a power ballad, a polka and a lullaby. I give up; who the hell did these guys sound like?

Let’s set aside comparisons for now. Spilt Milk was an ambitious, innovative, almost apocalyptic album that tested the limits of pop music and, well, the human ear. It began with a sweet a cappella lullaby, “Hush,” with such gorgeous harmonies reminiscent of the Beach Bo … oops, never mind. Then, as soon as you were relaxed and asleep, BAM! A heavy metal guitar riff introduced a … piano? … as Andy Sturmer launched into “Joining a Fan Club,” a bombastic, in-your-face ode to a rock star’s fan club. This song had it all – guitar solos racing pell-mell, feedback, several key changes and what sounded like 20-part harmony. Ear candy. And the wonderful heartaches began.

“Sebrina, Paste and Plato” was a rock operetta that started with a piano reminiscent of a children’s television show. The playful verse was followed by a rousing refrain that sounded like a bar full of drunken sailors, which was answered by a child’s voice saying, “Kool-Aid, sandwiches and chips for all the shoulders!” The drunken sailors replied, “Lunch is on the table, soon dessert is on the floor!”

Huh?

But then the chorus, the lovely sing-song chorus (“So serene, Sebrina makes me feel so serene …”) found its way into your heart, and it started all over again. By the end of the song, you were dizzy from the short, manic trip, and you didn’t care what the lyrics meant.

The genius of “Spilt Milk” was in the first six songs – one masterpiece after another. “New Mistake” provided an earful of guitars that sounded so bittersweet, complemented by a 10cc-like chorus (Dang it, did it again). “Glutton of Sympathy” was the classic that never was – a beautiful mid-tempo ballad that was made for radio. It was followed by the ill-fated first single, “The Ghost at Number One” – Queen resurrected. Sorry, but I can’t help it this time. It was Queen, dammit. All that was needed was Freddie Mercury. Then, taking a page from “The King is Half-Undressed,” we heard a bridge in a different key that turned the song upside down – multi-layered harmonies over a harpsichord. Now the group was doing its best Beach Boys imitation. It was dead-on, really.

The rest of the album continued the voyage through the looking-glass. “Bye Bye Bye” was a polka, complete with accordion and oom-pah-pahs. “All is Forgiven” was a thundering, wonderful, noisy anthem; the operatic, falsetto Queen/ELO harmonies made another appearance. The song ended abruptly into the quiet “Russian Hill,” an homage to Henry Mancini laced with strings and a flute.

How do you end such an album? With a circus tune, of course. “Brighter Day” was a slow, plodding song that sounds like it came straight from a calliope. You could almost hear children laughing and barkers peddling cotton candy. The song ended just as the album began: with a music box and the same note that started “Hush.” You had come full circle, but you felt as if you had been on the merry-go-round for 45 minutes, and it was about to start again.

The album was magnificent. Forty-eight mixed tracks of voices, strings, brass, flutes, banjos, chimes, theremins, harpsichords, accordions, balalaikas and other noise squeezed into 12 songs.

And it tanked on the charts.

Jammed smack in the middle of the grunge era, “Spilt Milk” presented a problem for Charisma Records, who didn’t know how to market the group. Try pitching an album as varied and intense as “Spilt Milk” alongside Nirvana and Pearl Jam and see how far it gets you. It got the album as high as No. 164 on the Hot 200 chart. And it was the beginning of the end for Jellyfish.

Tomorrow: And in the end…

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