That’s My Jam is a weekly feature where one person from the Selective Hearing staff goes to wax poetic about music that is pivotal to their musical tastes. Whether that would be an album, a song, or anything in-between. We all had to start somewhere.
Release Date: February 9, 1993
- Joining a Fan Club
- Sebrina, Paste, and Plato
- New Mistake
- Glutton of Sympathy
- The Ghost at Number One
- Bye Bye Bye
- All Is Forgiven
- Russian Hill
- He’s My Best Friend
- Too Much, Too Little, Too Late
- Brighter Day
The early 90’s band Jellyfish’s career may be one of the most textbook cases of being in the right place at the wrong time. In the early 1990s, the musical landscape in the US was changing drastically and quickly, as artists like Nirvana and Pearl Jam started to take over the charts and cause the powerful grunge movement, and this movement was so powerful that it resulted in a ton of other great artists from other styles and genres to be completely overlooked by the world in favor of grunge.
Jellyfish started their career in the early 90s and stuck with a sound that would’ve probably sold millions of albums back in the 1960s or 1970s. Their albums featured lush instrumentals using about every musical instrument you can think of on one recording, multi-layered vocal harmonies reminiscent of the Beach Boys, ELO, or Queen, the playfulness of songwriting and arrangements that had only previously been matched by the late-era Beatles records, precisely polished overall production that would’ve made grunge-sters cringe and two-man collaborative pop songwriting with a complexity and level of concept that hadn’t been heard since Lennon & McCartney worked together. (Andy) Sturmer & (Roger) Manning became the new songwriting duo to define complex, conceptual pop music of their era, as far as I’m concerned.
In a time where music was beginning to be largely manufactured to appeal to the lowest common denominator, Jellyfish was, excuse the pun, a fish out of water, given the complexity and depth encoded in their music. That didn’t stop them from releasing two extremely well-crafted albums that transcended their time and still live on today through the appreciative music listeners who know a great pop recording when they hear it.
The one that really drew me in the most was their second and final effort, “Spilt Milk.” While their first album “Bellybutton” had a few great recordings on it, they were still stuck in more of a purely psychedelic/neo-hippie sound that didn’t quite reach the level of complexity, timelessness, and quality as the second album. “Spilt Milk” features everything I described above and more. Here’s some highlights from the album.
The album starts with the track “Hush,” a short little bookend to start the album and establish the concept of the album taking place in a lucid dream-like state. The track is nothing but a light instrumental of strings and ambient sounds, with the dominant instrument being Andy and Roger’s voices, layered dozens of times over each other to create a gorgeous orchestral quality comprised of only their vocals and the strings.
This is one of the more memorable opening tracks/intros to an album I’ve heard to this day, and what instantly comes to mind whenever I think of “Spilt Milk.” Hear it for yourself:
Joining a Fan Club:
Right after “Hush” calms you into a dream-like state, “Joining a Fan Club” blasts into the mix with a heavy guitar riff and heavy drums. The song soon turns into a happy, piano driven piece accompanied by Andy’s dynamic vocal melody, only to soon burst into a loud rock arrangement again for the chorus, which it stays with for the entire song afterwards, making for the most heavy rock song on the album.
The vocal layering and eclectic bass guitar work are also consistent through the whole song, never really giving the listener time to catch their breath without throwing in a new hook or fill with each repeat of a section. There’s a huge rock instrumental bridge at 2:10 that goes all-out with drums, bass, guitar, even a saxophone, and slowly winds back down into a repeat of the chorus in a higher key and a final big rock ending, making for a hell of a journey from where we started.
I’m usually not one for paying much attention to lyrics in music, but Jellyfish’s lyrics across the board are exceedingly clever, catchy, and funny all at the same time. “Fan Club” was one of the first songs of theirs that made me notice there was something special about what they were saying, with it’s scathingly sarcastic nods towards commercialization of religion and metaphors linking fans’ celebrity worship and organized religion. Listen closely and you’ll see what I mean.
As a side note of trivia, this song was later covered by Japan’s PUFFY (or Puffy AmiYumi, if you will) and produced by Jellyfish frontman Andy Sturmer, as he went on to produce a number of their albums in Japan and the US. Their version is much more straight-forward and punk-y to match their style, much less complex than the Jellyfish recording, but still a lot of fun to listen to. You can compare the two versions below.
Joining a Fan Club (PUFFY):
“New Mistake” is when the album takes a tone for the more dramatic, calm side of things, with a dreamy arrangement full of heavily layered, lightly distorted guitars, organs, lively bass work, and wonderful, flighty vocal melodies and harmonies by Andy. At around 2:42 in the video below, the song starts a bridge section that features a gorgeous and huge vocal layering that leads into an instrumental section full of organ keyboards and swinging heavy bass guitar, straight out of 1970s soft rock/funk giants, in the vein of 10cc or Earth Wind and Fire. The vocals soon come back in with a three-part vocal arrangement with different lyrics for each part to go with the swinging beat, leading to a fade out with this progression.
This is a perfect example of how to pack a ton of complexity and songwriting into a concise four minute song; a skill that had mostly been overlooked and forgotten by the time the 1980s and 90s came around, and it’s something that I always appreciate in pop music. I’m a firm believer that packing lots of musical ideas into a shorter running time is a more appreciable skill than being able to play 10 minute songs.
Glutton of Sympathy:
“Glutton of Sympathy” is probably the most dramatic song on the album, heavy in acoustic guitars and gorgeous vocal melodies showcasing the emotion Andy can express with his voice. Some lightly distorted guitars accent the arrangement along with some sparingly-used drums and organ parts sprinkled through, as well as their signature vocal layering and harmonies, also including a psychedelic flanger-effect guitar solo. This song is about as close as this album comes to mainstream 90s pop music, but they did it better than any other band from the era, and seemingly effortlessly from their end. The song is just gorgeous, precise, and knows exactly what it’s trying to get across.
Ghost at Number One:
Another stand-out track is “Ghost at Number One.” The track starts with a swelling rock beat that explodes on the syllable of “apparition” into a heavy guitar-driven verse with a sweet descending chord progression, which quickly turns into a poppy follow-up chorus section heavy with harpsichords and then cleverly transitions right back into the previous verse section on a single beat at :38 in the video below.
The song soon takes a different feel at 1:29, sounding straight out of the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” with harpsichord, tambourine, strings, and heavy vocal layering, and seamlessly bursts back into the poppy chorus at 2:06. More embellishments from different instruments and vocal harmonies follow in the further repeats of the chorus, before winding down into an outro with prevalent harpsichord, drums, and even some random banjo.
Another song where the lyrics really jumped out at me, “Ghost” contains tons of clever references to the celebrity status associated with many musicians and how they’re often put on pedestals after their deaths (usually caused by drugs) and further exploited for money from the companies that owned their music. This was ironically released just one year before the infamous suicide of Nirvana’s Kurt Kobain; a situation that personifies the lyrics in “Ghost” so closely it’s almost scary. Gives you something to think about, in regards to how ahead of their time Jellyfish were, whether they knew it or not. Though, I guess history does repeat itself.
Bye Bye Bye:
“Bye Bye Bye” lands right about in the middle of the album, and takes another strange turn, as the song is completely arranged by instruments that sound like traditional music from countries like Russia or the Mediterranean, with mandolin, dulcimer, banjo, accordion, harpsichord, and heavy marching band horns all taking a place in the mix. Its nothing overly spectacular in the production department, but a very authentic recording featuring a vast array of instruments from around the world meshing together and all playing as one. Check it out.
There are a number of other great tracks on this album (especially “Sebrina” and “Too Much”) and they all fit into the album’s concept very well, but those above are the highlights that made this album as important as it is for me. You can find the others on YouTube or you could even buy it on iTunes if you like what you hear, but the whole thing is worth listening to as a whole for the experience and the realization of the concept of the album.
Unfortunately, Jellyfish didn’t last long after this album came out, as they toured for a short while after the release of “Spilt Milk,” despite not being met with much critical success, and they decided to part ways in late 1994.
It wasn’t the end of the musical careers for Sturmer or Manning, as they both went on to a variety of other activities including Sturmer writing and producing music for a number of artists like PUFFY and Yuki from Japan as well as The Black Crowes, Ozzy Osbourne, The Merrymakers, L.E.O. and many more, while Manning went on to make a number of great solo albums of his own and played with artists like Cheap Trick and Beck.
“Spilt Milk” still lives on as a milestone of modern pop recordings perfecting the great styles of the past and one that showed me in the late 90s, when I discovered it, that there were still some great musicians making music in that same vein under the surface of the mainstream in an era when I thought no such thing had existed.