Jellyfish dressed like the Banana Splits, but their 1990 debut Bellybutton opened with serious intent; “The Man I Used to Be” references “a family lost at sea”, the dramatic lyrics perhaps surprising for a power-pop band. Lead vocalist/drummer Andy Sturmer explains this disparity in approach in the accompanying sleeve notes to the first of their two recently released deluxe albums — they wanted to be serious artists, but the presentation to be colourful and entertaining. In this they succeeded, with a cover involving bright clothing, strawberry goop and a naked lady covered in toothpaste, and the music itself evidencing some solid song-writing; although Jellyfish were only together five years, putting out two studio albums, amongst fans this is a band treated with cult reverence, their legacy kept alive by supplemental releases like 2012’s Live at Bogart’s.
With their roots in the Paisley Underground, Jellyfish were noticeably influenced by bands like Big Star, the Raspberries and XTC, and seemed destined for big things until Grunge broke in 1991. Their (re-mastered) debut is made up of mostly upbeat, commercial pop and contains the band’s most successful single “Baby’s Coming Back”, along with other singles “That Is Why”, “The King Is Half-Undressed”, “I Wanna Stay Home” and “Now She Knows She’s Wrong”. The album is full of admirable hooks and melody: “Calling Sarah”, an ode to Sturmer’s then girlfriend, is reminiscent of Supertramp and “All I Want Is Everything” has moments of Beatle-like psychedelia. High-points are two of the singles, “I Wanna Stay Home”, with some beautiful trumpet from Chuck Findley and 12-string guitar by Jason Falkner, and the progressive chord excitement of “The King Is Half-Undressed”.
Overall there’s a sense that the band wanted to pack a lot into each song, and these re-issues adopt the same approach. CD1 adds a selection of live tracks from Los Angeles, San Francisco and London, showing the band could cut it live and includes non-album tracks “Mr Late” and “Jet”. CD2 contains 16 surprisingly elaborate demos, with seven songs not on the album (one of these, “Bye Bye Bye” was finished and featured on the next record); if you appreciate Bellybutton, you will almost certainly enjoy these.
Spilt Milk, the band’s second and final studio album, took a turn towards the more experimental; Jason Falkner had left the band, and Sturmer and Roger Manning attempted to reproduce what they were hearing in their heads, an audacious sonic sound. It’s a thoroughly multi-layered, Queen-like opus, almost a series of dreams; “Joining a Fan Club” has a multitude of vocal parts, “Sebrina, Paste and Plato” is a three-minute mini rock opera and “The Ghost at Number One” (a hit single in the US), a catchy and melodic attack of vocal prowess. Free of sampling, the album is an achievement through the depth of instrumentation, but is at times a little tiring with so much going on. “He’s My Best Friend”, inspired by Harry Nilsson, is a cyclical whirl and “All Is Forgiven” seems a little out of place, experimenting with heavy instrumentation as an apparent reaction to hearing My Bloody Valentine for the first time. CD1 has eight demos tagged on, and these are new songs over and above the album. Of these, “Family Tree” is a great ‘70s-sounding rocker, and “Long Time Ago” sounds like a good Del Shannon outtake.
CD2 is made up of demos for the album, with an extra intro and outro as if we’re entering into a new world; this was a band that lived in a technicolour Ronald Dahl landscape. There’s also a cover of Nilsson’s “Think About Your Troubles”, four live tracks and a fan club message (appropriately enough, for a band that had written about the perils of such things) with a recording of “The Ghost at Number One”.
It would be difficult to fault these two impressive re-issues due to their completeness and sound upgrade, and they must be essential for Jellyfish fans. Those with a casual interest in power pop bands will also be well served in checking them out.