When tracing the roots of the all too short-lived indie sensations Jellyfish, most will invariably stop at Beatnik Beatch. This is a mistake, however, as it overlooks a crucial step in the band's development. Before there was Beatnik Beatch there was Zulu Pool, a pop-rock group that's been virtually excised from the annals of indie-pop history altogether.
Zulu Pool's lineup may barely overlap with that of Jellyfish, but it overlaps in a crucial way. Before lending his incomparable songwriting acumen to Jellyfish, or even Beatnik Beatch, Andy Sturmer was honing his craft in Zulu Pool. While he wasn't the only songwriter in the band, as Sturmer shared the spotlight with fellow composer Chris Witt Ketner, he was an integral part of the group.
Zulu Pool only lasted for one album, the imaginatively titled At the Zulu Pool. The LP was picked up by an obscure indie label and barely released, to the point that it's now nearly impossible to find a copy of it. Despite this commercially inauspicious showing, however, the album did pave the way for the future, as it made enough of an impression to get the band signed to a major label.
It was at this point that keyboardist Se Padilla was swapped out in favor of Roger Manning. This wasn't the only change that the band underwent, however, as the lineup shift was accompanied by the decision to rename the group Beatnik Beatch.
With both Sturmer and Manning in tow, the creative core of Jellyfish was in place. For the time being, however, Manning was purely relegated to keyboard duties, while Sturmer's songwriting was considered ancillary to that of Ketner's.
Rather than produce a wholly new album, the band opted to recycle several tracks from At the Zulu Pool. Interestingly enough, the old and new tracks are practically indistinguishable from one another. This is fortunate, as it means that there are no jarring tone shifts or distracting incongruities.
While Sturmer and Manning may have subsequently grown frustrated by Ketner's creative dominance, for the time being they demonstrate excellent chemistry with their fellow partner. Sturmer is already showing signs of the melodic brilliance that he always brings to the table with Jellyfish, and Ketner is clearly prodigiously gifted in the songwriting department as well.
Even with the presence of Ketner, the band already sound a great deal like Jellyfish. Any fan of the latter will have an easy time adjusting to Beatnik Beatch, with little to betray the involvement of an 'outsider.'
More importantly, not only does the album resemble Jellyfish on a stylistic level, but it does so on a qualitative one as well. Beatnik Beatch is filled with topnotch pop-rock melodies. While tracks like Love on Your Side and Harlem may sound a bit weaker than the rest of the material, there's nothing that I would dismiss as unmitigated filler. Certain numbers, like the title track, are simply brilliant, as clever and catchy as anything in Jellyfish's repertoire.
While the subsequent success of Jellyfish may have attracted some extra attention to Beatnik Beatch, this is a rediscovery on a very, very small scale. Jellyfish themselves possess only a modest cult following at best, so any residual interest in the band's past hardly constitutes a commercial windfall.
This is a shame, as both Jellyfish and Beatnik Beatch deserve a place of prominence in the pantheon of indie pop-rock. What both acts lack in longevity they make up for in staying power. Even with such small discographies, the bands have managed to craft a plethora of songs that one won't soon forget.
While Beatnik Beatch doesn't quite reach the level of Sturmer and Manning's later endeavors, it's still the closest thing to a third (or first, from a chronological perspective) Jellyfish album that one will find. This makes it indispensable for any fan of the group, in addition to being a terrific album in its own right.
Being a pop group in the early nineties was a double-edged sword. On the one hand there was an expansive history of music behind you, leaving little sonic ground unexplored by the acts of yesteryear. It was a nearly insurmountable task to come up with something truly new and original, and one was always competing with and being compared to an armada of superb rock outfits from days past.
On the other hand, it also afforded a fledgling pop group a seemingly limitless vault of material to draw from. There's much to be learned from decades of high quality rock music, providing a newer ensemble with ample opportunities to grow and evolve simply by listening to the works of countless pioneers in the field of pop rock. If a band is intelligent and resourceful enough they can assimilate a vast array of influences while infusing their fare with their own personalities, ensuring that they'll never come across as generic or derivative.
Jellyfish are a group that make the most out of their predicament. While they're situated in an era when legions of pop acts had already come and gone, Jellyfish still sound fresh and inspired. Their influences may be transparent, but they've adapted the styles of their idols to their own idiosyncratic persona, resulting in a body of work that may betray its roots but is still worlds away from constituting plagiarism, or even mild, innocuous imitation, for that matter.
It's clear that Jellyfish owe the greatest debt to the more intelligent, edgy pop groups of days past, such as The Zombies and, in particular, XTC, but they also demonstrate a clear affinity for decidedly more innocent and quixotic outfits like The Beach Boys. Bellybutton is very much a melting pot of these disparate influences, resulting in complex yet accessible pop melodies and a diverse palette of pop-oriented styles.
There's also a certain dichotomy that's at the heart of the band's style, as their manic and vibrant musical tone often clashes with an innate, deep-seated darkness. This tenebrous undercurrent is more than tangible in songs like the melancholic She Still Loves Him, a track that recalls The Zombies in both style and substance. This inherent blackness proves an integral factor in differentiating Jellyfish from legions of blandly pleasant or gratingly cheery pop groups, lending an almost self-aware character to their output.
While Jellyfish have indeed inherited a lot from their precursors, their melodies are still very much their own, and that's the area in which they truly excel. The songwriting of the duo of Andy Sturmer and Roger Manning is truly impeccable, as each track boasts a plethora of creative pop hooks and catchy melodies.
While from a stylistic perspective Jellyfish's music comes across as a hybrid of the old-fashioned and the cutting-edge, the final product invariably sounds timeless, filled with the type of irresistible tunes that can never seem dated or passé. The band do their influences proud without ever relying too much on them, demonstrating a songwriting acumen that never betrays the relative novice status of the composers.
The album opens in fine fashion with the consummately catchy yet markedly bleak The Man I Used To Be, a moody pop rocker that's almost in the vein of Roger Waters with its allusions to war-torn families yet is entirely the band's own with its unique brand of brooding pop hooks.
That Is Why is more pop bliss, while The King Is Half-Undressed is a terrific pop rocker with an infectious refrain. I Wanna Stay Home could be a bland ballad in the hands of a lesser group, but in the context of Bellybutton the song is actually quite pretty and charming, and Jellyfish are far too intelligent a unit to allow the track to degenerate into the depths of saccharine sappiness that are threatened by some of its softer tendencies.
She Still Loves Him is a major highlight, an incredibly catchy number with echoes of sixties pop, disturbing lyrics about domestic abuse and a fantastic guitar solo, while All I Want Is Everything is a compact and punchy pop rocker with a soaring refrain.
Now She Knows She's Wrong recalls XTC in Dukes Of Stratosphear mode, Bedspring Kiss is dark but catchy, Baby's Coming Back is bouncy power pop at its finest and the closer, Calling Sarah, is a fitting conclusion to one of the finest pop albums of the nineties.
Ultimately Bellybutton is modern pop of the highest order by a band that's too intelligent to sound vacuous and cheery but too vibrantly animated to allow their intellect to compromise the excitement of their colorful, irresistible melodies. Jellyfish have already achieved an ideal balance between borrowing from their influences and depending on their own merits, and the result is a fresh and captivating excursion into pop music that sounds original while still betraying the smallest hint of welcome, endearing familiarity.
There have been myriad stellar rock groups that were never destined to enjoy even the slightest degree of longevity. Most of these ephemeral careers have been consigned to irrevocable anonymity, leaving no traces of themselves in the annals of rock and roll history save perhaps a solitary track that may have breeched the Billboard charts for a couple of weeks.
There are also, however, groups that were immortalized largely because of the brevity of their existence. Bands of this nature tend to owe their short-lived status to the early demise of a member, such as Nirvana or The Doors, or perhaps a mutual antipathy shared by the members for one another, as in cases like The Police and Cream.
There's also a third category that these evanescent enterprises can be assigned to, namely cult favorites. In such cases the band's brief history is pivotal to their mythos, albeit with considerably less fanfare than the likes of Hendrix and Joplin.
Typically these groups achieve their cult status through the transcendent artistic success of a single album, an LP that becomes the focus of their (limited) legend. Neutral Milk Hotel had their In The Aeroplane Over The Sea and The Stone Roses had their self-titled debut, single albums that proved sufficient to catapult their makers to a unique brand of obscure immortality, a niche superstardom that ensured that their names would endure in certain circles.
Sadly Jellyfish lasted a mere two albums, leaving one with the task of determining which of these three designations applies to them. Thankfully they adroitly eluded the fate of the first option, though their indie status and quirky disposition made conforming to option two an absolute impossibility.
Thus it's clearly the third option that suits the brief but wondrous career of Jellyfish. The resultant question that arises is which album it was that earned them safe passage into the pantheon of revered obscurity.
After the release of Bellybutton it was clear that, whatever fate awaited the band in their future, they had already produced their masterwork, a brilliant magnum opus that would ensure that they would never truly be forgotten. Should the band collapse a day after the arrival of Bellybutton they had still made their mark on the indie pop scene with a product that would be treasured by their fanbase for years to come.
Then the unthinkable happened: Jellyfish released an album that was superior to Bellybutton in virtually every department.
This album is Jellyfish's sophomore effort, Spilt Milk, an incomparable pop experience bursting with creative melodies and an array of unforgettable hooks. Out of twelve tracks there's nary a misfire on the album, and a convincing argument could be made for assigning the title of 'best song on the CD' to nearly any one of them.
Detractors will invariably decry the album's lack of originality, as Jellyfish admittedly borrow certain elements from a number of sources. They never steal a melody, or even a single hook, but it's abundantly clear that they owe a great debt to some of their influences.
Once again Jellyfish's most transparent influence is XTC. Nevertheless XTC are a rather remarkable band, earning their place in alternative rock history through a confluence of disparate factors. XTC boast superb, complex-yet-accessible and highly catchy melodies, intelligent, offbeat lyrics, idiosyncratic arrangements, experimental flourishes and a healthy amount of diversity, just to name a few of their many merits. It's through the marriage of these traits that XTC have attained a permanent position in the pantheon of indie pop history, a feat for which many will always sing the band's praises, and rightly so.
Therefore, given the intersection of qualities demanded to properly approximate the sound of XTC, it's no small task to emulate that particular group. Thus rather than lambaste Jellyfish for cleaving too close to their influences, I applaud the band for successfully adopting and deftly implementing a style that would confound nearly any of their contemporaries on the indie pop scene.
The fact of the matter is that Spilt Milk is a truly excellent album. The band open the album with lush Beach-Boys-esque harmonies on Hush before launching into Joining A Fan Club, an anthemic pop masterpiece that deftly segues between different sections, each of which is accompanied by a unique and catchy melody.
The whimsical Sebrina Paste And Plato is a playful jaunt through irresistible nursery-rhyme style melodies, New Mistake fares no worse and Glutton Of Sympathy skillfully negotiates the line between typical radio-friendly clichés and high quality music and delivery.
The Ghost Of Number One is more unorthodox yet catchy pop, which is immediately trumped by the even better array of hooks that accompany Bye Bye Bye. All Is Forgiven continues that band's impressive power pop instincts as they seamlessly blend colorful pop and hard rock characteristics, while Russian Hill sports a more serious tone that reinforces its sonic beauty.
He's My Best Friend offers nothing new from a stylistic perspective, but given the caliber of the song that's more than forgivable, while Too Much Too Little Too Late is more irresistible pop in a similar vein though not quite as strong, rendering it the weakest cut on the album. Given that Too Much Too Little Too Late is a first-rate pop song its unenviable status at the bottom is a testament to the pop brilliancy of Sturmer and Manning.
Spilt Milk ends with Brighter Day, a pop epic of the highest order and an appropriate track with which to close what's truly one of the greatest pop albums of all time.
This isn't reckless hyperbole, as Spilt Milk is truly an incredible album, featuring some of the catchiest and most idiosyncratic melodies that can be found in the music of any generation. As far as pop music is concerned it doesn't quite make it to the level of Sparks or XTC, but nevertheless Spilt Milk is a collection of fantastic material, clearly betraying influences from sixties rock (much like XTC) but never sounding even remotely dated or casting Jellyfish as a novelty retro band.
Thus Spilt Milk can be enthusiastically recommended to any connoisseurs of quality pop music, surpassing a debut that in and of itself could have guaranteed Jellyfish an enduring musical legacy. Together Bellybutton and Spilt Milk constitute a milestone in nineties pop music that few, if any, subsequent groups could ever hope to reach or duplicate.