San Francisco’s Jellyfish were underappreciated during their existence in the early 1990s, but have since gained a devoted following. Their power-pop is fun and sometimes bombastic, but is often also sincere. They’re notable for their ornate arrangements, especially on 1993’s Spilt Milk, where their harmonies are reminiscent of The Beach Boys or Queen. Jellyfish were also notable for their live shows, where lead singer and drummer Andy Sturmer performed with a standing drum kit. The group’s other constant member was keyboardist Roger Joseph Manning Jr; the pair had previously played together in Beatnik Beatch.
Unfortunately, Jellyfish only released two albums, and 1990’s Bellybutton essentially feels like a warm-up for Spilt Milk. I also have a 20-song compilation, but I don’t think it’s worth covering despite a few interesting b-sides – it’s more satisfying to hear their two albums in their entirety. But despite their small discography, I’ve given them a dedicated page, and I also have solo albums by Jason Falkner, who played guitar on Bellybutton, and Roger Joseph Manning Jr, which I’ll cover sometime.
Jellyfish Album Reviews
Jellyfish were formed by the songwriting partnership of Roger Manning and Andy Sturmer after their previous band Beatnik Beatch didn’t allow them to contribute songs. Their 1990 debut, Bellybutton, synthesises influences like XTC, The Beatles, and Cheap Trick into an enjoyable blend of lush, harmonised power pop. Manning and Sturmer were joined on Bellybutton by guitarist Jason Falkner, who left before its sequel, as Manning and Sturmer didn’t allow him to write songs for the group.
The stripped-down songs on Bellybutton make the strongest impression. ‘I Wanna Stay Home’ is pretty and poignant, while ‘Baby’s Coming Back’ bounces along like a 1960s bubblegum pop single. Songs like ‘Now She Knows She’s Wrong’ and ‘That Is Why’ showcase the band’s detailed harmony arrangements.
Bellybutton is good in its own right, but it also feels like a dry run for 1993’s more expansive and more impressive Spilt Milk.
Bellybutton was a likeable debut from Jellyfish, but Split Milk raises the ante significantly, with more memorable songs, more complex arrangements, and more punchy guitars. While their sound is comparable to many prominent bands, and there are traces of The Beach Boys on ‘Sebrina, Paste, and Plato’ and of XTC, Spilt Milk feels most influenced by Queen, with the big harmonies and hard guitar textures. While the core of the band – the song-writing team of Sturmer and Manning – is intact from Bellybutton, the rest of the band has changed, with new players on guitar and bass, while Jon Brion also provides some guitar.
Spilt Milk hits its straps on songs like ‘Glutton of Sympathy’ and ‘New Mistake’, which combine huge vocal hooks, stacks of harmonies, and detailed arrangements, producing some of the most intoxicating pop songs of the 1990s. There’s also the opening 1-2 punch of the gentle ‘Hush’ leading into the rock of ‘Joining A Fan Club’, and more brilliant pop of ‘The Ghost At Number One’. Spilt Milk tails off a little as it explores more esoteric territory; the album benefits from the diversity, but songs like ‘Russian Hill’ aren’t as memorable as the huge, hooky sound that Jellyfish specialise in.
Spilt Milk is a power-pop classic, and it contains some of the most irresistible pop songs of the 1990s.
10 Best Jellyfish songs
Glutton of Sympathy
The Ghost At Number One
Joining a Fan Club
I Wanna Stay Home
That Is Why
Too Much, Too Little, Too Late
Baby’s Coming Back
He’s My Best Friend
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Aphoristic Album Reviews is almost entirely written by one person.
Graham Fyfe is probably the only music blogger to appreciate both Neil Diamond and Ariana Grande. Based in Fleet Street (New Zealand), he's been writing this blog since around 2000. Aphoristic Album Reviews features reviews and blog posts across a growing spectrum of popular music.
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