Friday, February 29, 2008

Jellyfish -- "That Is Why" (1990)

In the power pop world, Jellyfish is considered the last "great" band of the genre. I'm not kidding. The Colorado-based Not Lame label even sells a double-CD tribute to the band where artists from all over the world contribute songs in the sequential order of the band's two albums.

When the debut album Bellybutton appeared on the Virgin-distributed Charisma label, the "power pop" description didn't enter my mind and it still really doesn't, despite the Not Lame insistence. Many old-time definition power poppers revere the Beatles through Revolver and The Who before Tommy. Jellyfish bares only a passing resemblance to them and the other "great" power pop bands like The Raspberries, Badfinger and Cheap Trick. There are no power chord arrangements wrapped up nicely in three minutes.

Jellyfish is more akin to Ambrosia and XTC -- melodic "art rock" utilizing a spectrum of instruments, both traditional and non-traditional. First of all, the album is called Bellybutton, so you know somehow these guys are pulling your leg in an "off" way. Secondly, look at that cover -- that's not the cover of a power pop band, but really a blend of psychedelics, fantasy, and lots of color.

The San Francisco-based quartet recorded Bellybutton with Alby Galuten, best known for being Barry Gibb's right-hand co-producer for all the last big Bee Gees run in America (including Saturday Night Fever), and his work with Barbara Streisand (Guilty), Diana Ross ("Chain Reaction") and Dionne Warwick ("Heartbreaker). Stylistically, there's nothing those acts had in common with Jellyfish, but they must have been on the same audio and conceptual page.

Bellybutton turned out to be a real "headphone" album, as the mix engineering was truly panoramic for what was an eccentric and slick pop record. You knew that from the very beginning, when you hear a very faint organ playing, and then it launches into the slow bluesy "The Man I Used To Be," with distorted guitar scratches, cinematic strings, and precise high bells like the kind you'd hear in a high school band.

This was a very ambitious band who sought to achieve a singular style unlike anybody else's, although you could certainly hear the influences of 70's acts like Supertramp, Queen and 10cc. It was almost as if they stepped out of that decade through a time machine, dressing in bell bottoms and a Cat in the Hat topper.

Jellyfish produced sophisticated pop which operated both traditionally and experimentally at the same time. Case in point is my favorite song from the album, "That Is Why," which has a breathtaking chorus underscored by Jason Falkner's counterpoint guitar. The verses are bouncy in the literal sense of the word, with Andy Sturmer's toms coming out for what may be best described as "licks" (!) at the end of each line.

Though it's hard to admit it's true
I've come to depend on you
You and your angelic shout
Loud enough for two

And that is why
I'll confide in you the truth this time
That is why
I just can't go on and live this lie

Yesterday all was right as rain
But now the forecast's not
It's partly cloudy with trouser stains
And his copy of enquiring minds

But that never meant that much to her
She chose to keep her nose too clean
She'd rather keep it pointed anyway
In the spine of a magazine

And when you say I trust in you
I promise you the truth
And when you say I bet you won't
You know I will
And it'll be better in the end

So when you think you've got it figured out
Then you know you don't
Like all the rest you'd like to sit and pout
But of course you won't

"That Is Why" was such a terrific song that Rhino included it on its Poptopia power pop compilations in the 90's.

With all kinds of band infighting, Falkner left after Bellybutton to start his own solo career, producing some of my favorite music of the last 10 years (and not enough of it, I may add). As a duo, Jellyfish recorded its second and last album, Spilt Milk, which some people consider an even better album (but not me). Drummer Andy Sturmer went on to produce the great Swedish power pop act The Merrymakers' Bubblegun album (discussed on this blog here), the Japanese pop band Puffy AmiYumi and compose for various animated TV series (like "Teen Titans").

Here are some wonderful Jellyfish videos. First, the official video for "That Is Why." You'll notice that drummer Andy Sturmer stood up while playing so he could sing and perhaps get more power that way. The second is a 1993 in-store all-acoustic version of the song while promoting Spilt Milk in Philadelphia. A third is the band performing their highest charting single, "Baby's Coming Back," live on German TV. The fourth is the official video for another favorite from Bellybutton, "The King Is Half-Undressed," which features outfits straight out of Dr. Seuss. And finally, Jason Falkner-era Jellyfish covering Fleetwood Mac's "Go Your Own Way" in Frankfurt, Germany (that's the blond guy on the left playing the Telecaster).

"THAT IS WHY" (official video)

"THAT IS WHY" (1993 in-store performance in Philadelphia)

"BABY'S COMING BACK" (live performance on German TV)

"THE KING IS HALF-UNDRESSED" (official video from 1990)

"GO YOUR OWN WAY" (Fleetwood Mac cover, finale of Frankfurt, Germany concert)

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