Well, it looks like I’m the first one up and as it turns out, one of my all-time favourites has been picked out of the hat.
The album in question is:
Jellyfish / Spilt Milk (1993)
Open the spoiler below to read a (very long) introduction I’ve written on this album:
OK, so let’s get this out of the way: that is one butt-ugly cover, which is a shame because this album and the band who made it rules; even though they lasted just a few years and made just two commercially unsuccessful albums, Jellyfish have garnered an avid cult following for good reason: they made some of the best and most acclaimed rock music of the 90’s.
Jellyfish was formed in 1989 and revolved around the songwriting duo of vocalist/drummer Andy Sturmer and pianist Roger Manning. Everything about them, from their flower power fashion to their power pop-indebted songwriting, stuck out sharply against the trends of the time, but the strength of their songs still managed to get them a deal with Charisma Records. They were initially joined by Roger’s brother Chris on bass plus Jason Falkner on guitar and with this line-up they recorded their first album Bellybutton in 1990 which, despite great reviews, was met with mediocre sales largely due to the dominance of hair metal on the airwaves of the day.
After this, the band was reduced to Andy and Roger following an acrimonious split with Falkner, and Chris following suit. Despite this setback, the duo spent the ensuing months writing and recording with even greater verve. To fill in for Falkner and Chris in the studio, they hired Jon Brion (now a legendary producer and film composer) and Tim Smith respectively. The sessions have become infamous for their extravagant budget (costing over $600,000) and the toll they took on it’s creators. After six months of ceaseless writing and another six months in the studio, they emerged with Spilt Milk in early 1993, an album they proclaimed as their masterwork and the fulfilment of their initial vision.
Spilt Milk is straight up one of the best albums of the 90’s and one of the best power pop albums ever; this really is where the band realised their potential and joined the echelon of genre greats like Todd Rundgren and Cheap Trick while still forging their own idiosyncratic path. Spilt Milk is power pop songwriting at it’s absolute zenith: endlessly catchy but not remotely disposable or lightweight. The songs here are just overflowing with hooks that never get old and the production perfectly complements it with a perfect blend of 90’s alt-rock heaviness and 70’s studio hermit mindfuckery; if you have a nice pair of headphones, this is a good album to bust them out for. There’s so many great touches in the arrangements too, from the gorgeous pedal steel work on Russian Hill to the klezmer instrumentation on Bye Bye Bye. Sturmer’s vocals were the best part of Bellybutton, and his work here is even better; his performance on Joining A Fan Club borders on virtuosic and the lyrics he penned for the album, which encompass everything from pop fandom as religion to the horrors/joys of unexpected fatherhood, are joyously twisted. There’s no shortage of obvious reference points here from Queen (All is Forgiven) to XTC (The Ghost at Number One) but to dwell on them would be a disservice to the imagination and songcraft on display; nothing comes off as a tired pastiche despite the obvious influences. Taken together, the 12 songs on Spilt Milk represented a huge step forward for Jellyfish and took everything that was merely good on Bellybutton and turned it into something outright exceptional.
On release, the album was met with rave reviews but even worse sales than it’s predecessor; released at the apex of grunge, Jellyfish clearly didn’t fit into in with the flannel-wearing grunge depressives of '93 any better than the hair metal dorks of '90, so it didn’t even crack the top 150 on the Billboard 200. Before starting work on a third album, differences and disagreements emerged between Sturmer and Manning regarding the band’s musical direction, lack of commercial success and their ensuing dire financial straits. The band unceremoniously split a year after Spilt Milk’s release and the two haven’t spoken face-to-face since.
In the ensuing years, the stature of the band has only grown, they’ve gained a devout cult following who are more avid and numerous than the fanbase they had when they were actually active, and both of their albums, especially Spilt Milk, are recognised as sorely-underrated classics, with second-hand copies fetching hundreds on the second hand market.
As critic Dave Everly put it:
They either arrived a decade-and-a-half too late or were so far ahead of their time that they’re still waiting for the rest of the world to catch up. More than 20 years after their split, Jellyfish practically define the notion of the cult band. To the small but ardent following they attracted, they remain lost geniuses whose promise remains unfulfilled.
Since their disbandment, Sturmer has largely shunned the spotlight and now works composing music for children’s television. Manning has released a handful of solo albums, pursued several side projects and tours as a sideman with Beck alongside Falkner. The members have repeatedly refused any consideration of a reunion despite several lucrative offers.
I’m super jealous of anyone here who’s about to listen to this album for the first time. There’s a good reason I penned this overwrought introduction and spent way too much on importing a vinyl copy from Japan a few months ago: it’s pop music at it’s most inventive and infectious, and even though it’s taken over 30 years, it’s finally getting it’s due.
Listen to the full album here:
(note: everything past 46:18 is bonus material)