Too Much, Too Little, Too Late: How Jellyfish created the perfect pop album and why you’ve never heard of it until now
The musical landscape at the beginning of 1993 was as diverse as it was chaotic- the grunge craze was reaching its peak and longtime underground mainstays like the Red Hot Chili Peppers and R.E.M. suddenly found themselves exploding in popularity. Hip-hop was finally coming into its own as a commercially viable genre, and ‘80s hard rock and new wave were both fizzling out even as bands like Tears for Fears and Guns n’ Roses clung stubbornly to the charts. Trent Reznor was on the cusp of breaking industrial rock into the mainstream, and across the pond, the baggy and Madchester scenes were just beginning to morph into what would eventually become the short-lived cultural juggernaut that was Britpop.
Into this veritable cultural maelstrom wandered Jellyfish, a young group from San Francisco peddling a retro brand of pop rock, who looked like they had stumbled straight out of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. Their 1990 debut, Bellybutton, had largely flown under the radar despite charting a few singles. A combination of financial pressures, a stressful touring schedule, and lack of creative control drove both guitarist Jason Falkner and bassist Chris Manning to quit the band by 1992. Needless to say, the stakes were high for their second record. So, remaining members and primary songwriters Andy Sturmer and Roger Manning enlisted producers Albhy Galuten & Jack Joseph Puig, bassist Tim Smith, and a slew of session musicians, and spent 6 months crafting their second, and ultimately final, album.
That album was 1993’s Spilt Milk, a record that seamlessly blended Manning’s penchant for the lush vocal harmonies and detailed pop composition of bands like Queen and XTC with Sturmer’s quick-witted, sardonic lyrical sensibility. The closest modern point of reference would probably be Fun.’s Aim and Ignite, with all the wide-eyed optimism replaced with wry observational humor. With the exception of gentle opener “Hush”, there’s not a track on here that doesn’t hide some inventive turn of phrase or piercingly clever insight, whether it’s describing the happy-go-lucky protagonist of “Sebrina, Paste and Plato” as a “love-a-tarian”, or filling nearly every line of “He’s My Best Friend” with sly innuendo. And despite employing a wider vocabulary than many of his contemporaries, Sturmer’s writing still rolls off the tongue marvelously, never sounding forced or pretentious.
Sturmer may have been a more-than-competent lyricist, but these songs are so pretty on the surface that Spilt Milk could have easily skated by on style alone. Manning packs these songs to the brim with a huge variety of instruments- guitars, basses, keyboards, and drums, of course, but also accordions, banjos, french horns, harpsichords, violins, glockenspiels, woodwinds, and enough layers of vocal harmonies to make Jeff Lynne blush. These elements are all arranged expertly, and they give the album a rich sonic palette that feels both psychedelic and baroque in equal measure.
Still, at the end of the day, Sturmer and Manning were concerned first and foremost with using their talents to enhance the simple pleasures of pop music- giving sticky-sweet hooks and soaring melodies both lyrical depth and instrumental complexity. The falsetto “woo-hoo-hoo”s of “New Mistake” and the ecstatic chorus of “Sebrina, Paste and Plato” are the most obvious examples, but frankly almost every song on here is charming, memorable, and just plain fun.
Jellyfish had seemingly everything going for them on Spilt Milk, but unfortunately, the album was simply released in the wrong place at the wrong time. In an era where a new subgenre cropped up seemingly every other week, the music press had little interest in a band that seemingly only rehashed established styles, and the notoriously press-shy Sturmer had little interest in promoting the album to media outlets. Their whimsical, flower-children image didn’t help matters either- it simply couldn’t have been more out of place when the rock world was enthralled by the disheveled, flannel-and-denim look of Nirvana and Stone Temple Pilots. Spilt Milk underperformed commercially (although “The Ghost at #1” did become a minor hit on alternative radio stations), and after an arduous international tour in support of the album, Sturmer and Manning officially broke Jellyfish up due to increasing artistic friction between the two.
In the 25 years since Spilt Milk‘s release, Sturmer has embarked on a career as a composer for children’s TV shows (You may be familiar with his work on Teen Titans, Ben 10, Fish Hooks, and The Looney Tunes Show), while Manning has released several solo albums and worked as a session and touring musician for many notable artists, including Beck, Interpol, and Blink-182. However, while the former band members were moving on to other endeavors, Jellyfish was slowly accruing a small but devoted posthumous following. Over the years, ‘90s obsessives and bargain-bin crawlers picked up odd copies at thrift stores and secondhand at record shops (or, in the case of yours truly, stumbled across it on Spotify), and proceeded to proselytize the band’s virtues to anyone who would listen. Increasing demand for more Jellyfish music eventually led to a limited deluxe reissue of both of their albums by Omnivore Records in 2015, and a biography of the band the next year. Today, the band is considered by many to be one of power pop’s best-kept secrets, and given the impeccable craftsmanship of albums like Spilt Milk, it certainly isn’t hard to see why.