Tuesday, January 13, 2015

I've Come To Depend On You: A Loving Look At These Two Amazing Jellyfish Reissues From Omnivore Recordings

It seems odd to say that Jellyfish changed my life. They don't seem like the sort of band to generate that kind of statement. They weren't The Smiths, you know?

But, in all honesty, what other American band so influenced and shaped my listening habits in the 1990s? Without listening to Bellybutton (1990) and Spilt Milk (1993), I'd never have become a fan of Jason Falkner, never sought out anything and everything Andy Sturmer touched -- like Puffy AmiYumi -- nor scoured CD bins for stuff like Imperial Drag just 'cause Roger Manning Jr. was on it, and I never would have started noticing Jon Brion's name on albums just because he had a small part in the second Jellyfish record. So, in a sense, Jellyfish did change my life as a music fan, especially since searching for anything Jellyfish-related gave me and my buddy Mike a new hobby for a few years.

(How many times did one of us buy some CD single, or promo. comp., just to get another Jellyfish rarity in our collections?)

And in an era of grunge, and an era in which I had just quit working in music retail after 3 straight years, they reminded me of how joyous and fun pop music could be.

Is it so silly of me to be so nostalgic for that moment when I first saw the video for "The King is Half-Undressed" on MTV one morning before college classes and felt so happy about new music again? That song really was a burst of sunshine for me at a moment when I was a bit down in the dumps about not working in a record store anymore.

I've been listening to these 2 records for so long now that it's hard to believe that they've never been released in this sort of splendid fashion until now. But they have now finally been remastered and reissued, spectacularly, by Omnivore Recordings. Not only have Bellybutton (1990) and Spilt Milk (1992) never sounded this good before -- that remastering is aces! -- but there's now a grand total of 51 (!) bonus cuts spread across these 2 releases.

Bellybutton (1990) sounds amazing. Even better than it did in 1990? Yeah, definitely. I'd venture to say that "The King is Half-Undressed" has never sounded this crisp. "Bedspring Kiss", always a highlight of the record for me, still seems like the lost Nineties pop gem that more people desperately need to hear, and "That is Why" shines with a McCartney-and-Wings-like clarity.

And what about those bonus cuts? Oh, where to begin, man!?!

Disc 1 has the original album plus 10 live cuts. Some of these -- the scorching version of "Jet", for example -- I'd heard before but they all sound great and provide a nice counterpoint to the band on the album. If the remastered Bellybutton (1990) reveals a set of studio wizards, these live cuts give hints of an act that should have been filling stadiums on both sides of the Atlantic. Poised somewhere between Cheap Trick and Queen, with a hint of Supertramp thrown in for good measure, Jellyfish live were a great American band perennially under-appreciated in America.

Then there's essentially the demo version of the album. As the excellent liner notes explain, the band had a set of demos that served as a sort of blueprint for the album Bellybutton (1990). As Jason Falkner elaborates in the liner notes:

"I joined the band because I loved the songs. When we started making the record, we were almost territorial about the demos, because we had spent quite a bit of time on them. Those were all done on an 8-track reel-to-reel, and we had really worked out the arrangements ourselves. I remember thinking we should not veer too far from the arrangements we came up with on the demos, because I thought they were really good."

And it's fascinating to hear these demos through that prism. "Now She Knows She's Wrong" is somehow more Beatles-like here in its demo form; I actually now like this version more than the cut that made the record! And personal favorite "Bedspring Kiss" here reveals more of a jazz underpining in this demo version than the more precise masterpiece that made its way onto Bellybutton (1990).

But it's not just the album cuts that get the demo treatment as there are a few unused songs here too. Of these, the most notable are "Deliver" which quotes Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue in the melody, "Queen of the U.S.A." which provides a hint of something that could have been a great song with some production and expanded instrumentation, and the exquisite "Let This Dream Never End" which is the odd-but-beautiful love-child of OMD and The Beach Boys. That sounds like a weird comparison to make but fans of this band -- and those -- will get what I mean. A really splendid and transcendent piece of song-craft, "Let This Dream Never End" is a real treasure.

And this reissue ends as it should with the demo of "Bye Bye Bye" which would eventually rear its head on 1993's Spilt Milk...

By the time Spilt Milk (1993) was being planned, Jellyfish was essentially a 2-man show since Jason Falkner had started to work on his own projects like The Grays. The band had a clearer focus this time out with fewer people at the helm. Of course, Spilt Milk (1993) also sounds fantastic. Really, there's not much I need to say about the album itself 'cause...it's still a freakin' masterpiece! If anything, tracks like "Too Much, Too Little, Too Late" sound crisper on this remastered version than they did 21 years ago. And what could I possibly say about "New Mistake" now? It sounded monumental on old car speakers blasting from a TDK tape on a shitty deck in my ride 20 years ago and it sounds just as boss now in its remastered glory via headphones.

Even with or without the remastering of the cuts on the album, the selling point of this new reissue of Spilt Milk (1993) has to be the inclusion of the 8 demos and bonus cuts on the end of Disc 1 of this set. Some of these tracks -- "Ignorance is Bliss" and "Family Tree" -- are ones that I heard back in the 1990s after I fished around bargain bins for any compilation or CD single that contained a Jellyfish rarity. But there are a few others that I really must write about. Let's start with "Long Time Ago" which sounds so much like a Harry Nilsson song that I almost didn't believe it wasn't when I looked at the liner notes booklet to see who penned this one. Quite simply one of the most poignant things that Sturmer and Manning ever committed to tape, I would go so far as to say that you should purchase this set just to get your hands on this tune. Almost as good is the rockier "Runnin' for Our Lives" which charms on the back of a killer hook. Admittedly neither cut would have sounded quite at home on Spilt Milk but either one would have worked on Bellybutton (1990). That doesn't make a lot of sense but I think the 2 tunes are stronger versions of the sort of thing the guys were crafting for their debut.

Of the other non-album cuts and demos, "I Need Love" sounds A LOT like what that band The Feeling would end up doing so well years later...which is a way of saying that those guys were influenced by Jellyfish without knowing it, I guess?

And "Watchin' The Rain" with its sublime bridge is the distant cousin in sonic terms to "Glutton of Sympathy", all minor chord moodiness and big melodic hooks.

Of the demo versions of the cuts that would wind up on Spilt Milk (1993) it's worth noting stuff like "All is Forgiven" which, in its demo form, serves as the barest outline of what the band would attempt on the record. As Roger Manning explains in the liner notes:

"I think that was definitely a response to listening to My Bloody Valentine. It was an opportunity to not only do heavy instrumentation but to experiment with some extra, extra heavy harmony vocals."

Similarly, the demo version of "Sebrina, Paste and Plato" reveals a strong tune that benefited greatly from the studio wizardry that beefed up the cut on the album. Most of the demos offer something similar. They are a glimpse into how Manning and Sturmer wrote tunes and while they sound fantastic on their own, it's probably best to think of them as early versions of what the album cuts would be once the tracks were arranged, performed, produced, and mixed.

If the demo versions are mainly the work of Roger Manning and Andy Sturmer, the live tracks hint at the band that Jellyfish had become with the addition of Tim Smith and Eric Dover, though it's worth noting that Tim Smith is on Spilt Milk too. The band was able to deliver even more of what was on the record with these 2 guys in on things.

The live cuts on this reissue of Spilt Milk (1993), though, are acoustic and the tunes seem strong if not necessarily as rockin' as they do on the album. The exception is a cover of the Pink Lady cut "S.O.S." which roars out to an appreciative audience in Japan. One wonders now if this was the start of Andy Sturmer's adventures in Japan. Considering how much he brought to Puffy AmiYumi, and how many new fans -- myself included! -- his presence earned the band, it's a fair question. If anything, this rollicking version of the Pink Lady standard is a nice little gem that reveals what naturals these cats were on stage even while they were geniuses in the studio.

You know the best thing I could possibly say about these 2 albums as they are presented here by Omnivore Recordings is that they sound even better now then they did in 1990 and 1993. I don't just mean that in terms of sound quality; Jellyfish and their recorded output actually seem more significant now. Forget the cartoon-y shit in some of the early videos and focus on the tunes and musicianship instead and you'll come to agree with me that Andy Sturmer and Roger Manning Jr. were two of the most gifted artists to rise up in an era unfortunately blighted by too much grunge. I do have a richer appreciation of the band now mainly 'cause of these demo versions of each album. It feels like you can now hear how Sturmer and Manning worked and that's pretty awesome. The unused songs spread out among the demo tracks on each disc present even more of a strong case for such a high assessment of these guys. Jellyfish's cast-off cuts were remarkably great in spots. "Long Time Ago" is as good as anything Neil Finn penned in the 1990s, for example, and that's saying a helluva lot.

So what's the final equation? We've got 2 great albums, a demo version of each, a bunch of great rare, unused songs, some scorching live cuts, and authoritative liner notes booklets with band commentary on each album track.

What the heck are you waiting for? Head over to Omnivore Recordings and get these 2 Jellyfish reissues of Bellybutton (1990) and Spilt Milk (1993) now!