Thursday, September 17, 2009

Jellyfish -- Spilt Milk

There are so many reasons that a person can fall so hopelessly in love with Jellyfish’s 1993 masterpiece Spilt Milk:
  • Their uncanny ability to pay reverent bent-knee sonic tribute to the bands which influenced them without straying into the lazy band’s realm of wholesale theft (World Party, I’m looking at you).
  • The balancing act which they make look so easy between obvious production obsession and emotional music which hasn’t had its passion produced out.
  • The SONGS, man! Each one of them is a winner; songwriters Andy Sturmer and Roger Manning, Jr. really brought the goods this time out.

To label this album merely a ‘90s power pop would be technically accurate, but insufficient in relating the genre-crossing treasures within. Jellyfish takes the intricate, glorious harmonies of the Beach Boys, the theatrical hard rock of Queen, the thundering crush of noise that MBV made famous, and even throws in the carnival kaleidoscope that the Beatles let us take a peek through with Sgt. Pepper’s, and layer all of these sonic touchstones together like the finest musical lasagna.

In a lot of ways, I liken Jellyfish to Steely Dan, but not in the ways most people would think. In terms of genre and musical influences, the two bands couldn’t be further from each other. But Steely Dan had the uncanny ability to start with excellent songs, demand perfect performances from their musicians, and end up with a masterly crafted record you actually listen to repeatedly just to catch new details that you missed the time before. And like Steely Dan, that very same studio obsession ended up blowing the respective bands apart, leaving excellent records and broken-hearted fans in their wake. I can’t help but wonder if Jellyfish had their own inevitable demise in mind when they titled the album Spilt Milk.

The album starts oddly enough with the loveliest of lullabies, “Hush”. Sweet Beach Boys harmonies coo and swoon behind a gentle un-ironic lyric to bring on the sandman. But the lull is temporary…

The next song thunders in like a rhino. In a perfect world, “Joining A Fan Club” would be universally hailed as one of the classic raucous Rockers of all time. (Think Queen’s “Tie Your Mother Down” and Led Zep’s “Celebration Day”. Yeah, it’s THAT good.) Not enough superlatives can be heaped upon this song; it’s a shameless stomper that really captures what Rock should always strive for.

Sebrina, Paste, and Plato” is one of the sunniest songs ever written. Mixing equal parts exuberance, absurdity, and whimsy, Jellyfish captures child-like happiness in a bottle (just as Prince did with “Starfish and Coffee”), while deliciously paying tribute to the Beach Boys. Now before you start thinking that all they are about is lovin’ the California surf band, please keep in mind that to truly approach the beauty of that Beach Boys Pet Sounds-era majesty is no small feat. “Sebrina…” contains kettle drums, sleigh bells (remember “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?”), spinet piano, and yes, the aforementioned beautiful harmonies a la Brian Wilson.

Power-pop perfection is achieved with the next song, “New Mistake”. Electric piano and castanets never sounded so beautiful as an interlude between layers of strings, clavinet, big ol’ Queen guitars, and soaring melodies, all in the service of a clever lyric warning against unwanted pregnancies and romance with rockstars. The song fades down gently to the sound of crickets.

Andy Sturmer sings quietly over an acoustic guitar at the start of “Glutton Of Sympathy”. Subtly, one instrument or vocal part at a time, the song builds to a beautiful soaring denouement. Utterly brilliant; any sort of objectivity is erased in the face of songs as perfect as this.

If your radio stations weren’t cool enough to play “New Mistake” on the radio when this album was released, you might have been fortunate to have heard the next song on the airwaves, “The Ghost At Number One”. It’s a cynical, angry screed against an egotistical former rockstar, or is it? The Partridge Family keyboards they employed so wonderfully on their previous album Bellybutton (“Baby’s Comin’ Back” most notably) are back here in a nastier song, as are the sleigh bells and kettle drums.

Who would have thought that a polka could be pulled off so well by power-poppers with a retro sense of theatricality? Bye Bye Bye” was actually demoed for their first album, but fits in on this album wonderfully. Accordions, tubas, and mandolins, oh my! The Grim Reaper is really dressed in leiderhosen, and invites his elderly clients to merrily skip their way to the gates of the Hereafter; who knew?

The next song, “All Is Forgiven”, sticks out like a sore thumb among the rest of the songs; on it, thundering drums and cacophonous guitars create a frenzied, claustrophobic maelstrom of ugliness. But that’s the point; the lyrics are sung from a third person who sees a woman take back her lyin’, cheatin’ man. This third person thinks the woman is making a huge mistake, and makes no bones about it, calling the man in the tale “hypocrite, four-flusher, snake in the grass / just a swindler and wolf in sheep’s clothing, LIAR!” In this song, there are hints of My Bloody Valentine, just in the punishing layer of guitar. It took me years to appreciate this song, due to its level of difficulty; it’s not an easy pill to swallow. But I think its greatness lies in creating such a high level of antagonism; it’s a very well choreographed musical anger.

After a crescendo of anger, “Russian Hill” comes in as a pastoral, quiet song which lulls you back into placid waters; after war comes peace (if you’re lucky). This song is the musical equivalent of lying on your back in a park on the grass on a sunny summer day, just watching the clouds peacefully roll through the sky. Flutes and strings float past each other like butterflies. Life is groovy; pass the Cheez-Its.

Jellyfish songs had a funny way of popping into the strangest places; one of their songs ended up on a Nintendo musical compilation album (“Ignorance Is Bliss”). The next song ended up for some weird reason on the soundtrack to a bad Stephen Baldwin film, Threesome. He’s My Best Friend” catches that sunny ‘70s groove, but its subversive lyric is really about, ah, shaking hands with yourself. I’ll avoid any double entendre puns beyond that, especially since the band hits upon most of them cleverly within the lyrics to the song. This song joins other fine songs written about the same subject; the Who wrote “Pictures Of Lily”, Jackson Browne wrote “Rosie”, and the Vapors gave us “Turning Japanese”. And oh, who could forget Cyndi Lauper’s “She Bop”?

Although the title conjures up Deniece Williams and Johnny Mathis, “Too Much Too Little Too Late” keeps its ambitions economical when compared to its predecessor songs, but it’s a truly wonderful power pop song nonetheless.

The album caps off with “Brighter Day”, a carnival-esque denouement to the world of wonders which precede it. “Strike the tent, un-prop the paintbox / Pack the carriages with the flesh-freaks of fear”. The spectacle of it all is both celebrated and debunked simultaneously; the circus gives joy and cynical ugliness in equal measures. Trumpets, oom-pah beats, and organ grinders beckon you to “come and join the big parade / It’s going to be a brigher day”. The album began with a double-tracked violin which fades in and twinkly toy piano; it ends similarly. When all else has gone away, the double-tracked violin fades away into the distance.

Honestly, Jellyfish couldn’t have made a more perfect album. Even they must have agreed; the pressures that they put upon themselves to arrive at such perfection (and purportedly the volatile personality mix of the band members themselves) drove the band apart, as if a CD spinning at 500 RPM suddenly shatters under the stress of it all, the pieces flung to all four corners of the room. I still wish Jellyfish could have given us more music beyond the two albums they delivered to us, but if Spilt Milk was always meant to be their closing chapter, what a peerless masterpiece to end the band’s career on.

Postscript: This CD is one of many of my personal collection which still bears the scars of the infamous Dr. Pepper incident. When I was on the air at WLUW doing my show The Midnight Zone, I would buy 1-liter sized bottles of Dr. Pepper or Mtn. Dew to give me that great sugar-rush to keep me yappy between songs. As I was finishing up what I imagined in my head to be an excellent intro to the next song, I accidentally knocked a half-full bottle of Dr. Pepper into the duffle bag of MY OWN CDs which was on the floor next to the console. As I looked down in horror to the sticky liquid which was currently permeating what was then a very important slice of material happiness in my life, I shouted the famous F-bomb twice without thinking, without realizing that my microphone was still open. Marinating in both the dual horror of soaking my CD collection AND spectacularly breaking an FCC rule, I quickly started the song and closed the mike. Blotting up the Dr. Pepper with as many paper towels that you can grab quickly only does so much; to this day, certain irreplaceable CDs’ booklets and tray cards have telltale sodapop stains and damage. While this CD might be called Spilt Milk, the moral of that horrible day is to not cry over spilt Dr. Pepper. Especially with an open mike.


Anonymous Todd T. said...

I love Dr. Pepper. And Mt. Dew.

October 15, 2009 7:57 PM  
Blogger Hollywood Gauntlet said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

April 03, 2013 12:44 PM  
Blogger Hollywood Gauntlet said...

Thanks for sharing your love for Jellyfish and SPILT MILK.

There is a new Jellyfish podcast about the band called "Still Crying Over SPILT MILK" that includes rare interview clips, demos, live acoustic and electric performances and many more Jelly goodies packed inside an epic length discussion that also celebrates the 20th Anniversary of SPILT MILK.

Check it out at:

April 03, 2013 12:45 PM  

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