Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Jellyfish Family Tree Part 1: "Bellybutton" at the Root

Looking back on the time after I graduated from high school and began my undergraduate degree, I can clearly see how I tried to cling to my life in Austin while a new one stretched out before me in Denton. I traveled with alarming regularity on the weekends, and tried to maintain a career as a record store employee over longer breaks. During my first summer break in 1990, I got a job working at the Hasting’s at Barton Creek Mall. Predictably, I discovered a lot of music during that time. Jellyfish, a band that was brought to my attention by a fellow employee and working musician, was one such discovery. Although their debut Bellybutton seemed like a retro-pop curiosity at the time, in the long term it became hugely influential on me.

Just for context, when Bellybutton was released, 2 Live Crew’s lewd and ultimately substandard rap had created a McCarthyesque witch hunt for profanity and lewdness in popular music. Jellyfish’s album cover, if examined closely, is a naked female body covered in what looks like blue gel toothpaste. When I purchased my copy of Bellybutton back then, it was folded to hide the perhaps more socially sensitive areas of the cover art. I have not seen this in subsequent pressings of the album. Bellybutton found its way into my CD stacks at the end of that summer, and subsequently went back up to Denton with me when I returned to the dorms.

Aside from being located across the street from the music building, Bruce Hall was lacking many amenities back then. Truthfully, we were secretly proud that there was no air conditioning, and that there was one centrally located TV for the entire dormitory. We were often left to ourselves for entertainment, and listening to music was a pervasive social activity. By this time, I had acquired a decently idiosyncratic collection of CDs, so when people would congregate in our room to hang out I prided myself on having a constant supply of offbeat tunes.

Although I was pushing a lot of King Crimson in those days, when Bellybutton found its way into the player, it quickly became the favorite of many. The sunny exterior of Jellyfish’s songs harbors a dark, bittersweet lyric narrative, and for nearly two years, this incomprehensibly well-crafted juxtaposition kept Bellybutton in rotation as it was requested by a seemingly endless queue of people living in my wing. It started with my roommate, but very soon, anyone coming to hang out asked me to put it in. I listened to Bellybutton over and over, and in all those playings, it never really got old.

Instead, the more I listened to it, the more deeply it affected me. As I slowly understood the meaning of Bellybutton, and also saw its meaning unfold to my friends, I realized that it harbored more than dark commentary, but a life-weary angst that belied the age of its members. Concurrently, the harmonic and melodic complexities of the album seemed to have a nearly endless depth which, I would find out later, the band could render live with consummate ease.

Over the next decade, I found that I was not alone. Although Jellyfish never rose far above a cult following, they inspired a whole wave of underground power pop in which I, for a time, also swam. Their career as a band was regrettably short-lived, but their albums and the albums that their members made in subsequent years drove my musical interests throughout the 90s. Just by keeping track of what Jellyfish’s members did after the band's demise, I came across some amazing music.

Earlier this year, I did a retrospective on Rush’s catalog. The length of their timeline lends itself well to this sort of coverage, and as a whole, I think that it represents the role that Rush plays in my overall musical concept. In their own way, Jellyfish played a similar role, but their catalog is so small that a similar retrospective won’t do them a similar justice. Therefore, for this new project, I plan to recreate my ascent up the Jellyfish family tree, and hopefully shed light on a succession of albums that bent my ideas about what were possible in pop music.

To jump to the next post in the series, click here.


  1. Although I hate spoilers, I can't help but mention that the Jellyfish family tree lives on...

    I ordered and picked up Brendan Benson's latest "What Kind of World" from my new favorite independent CD shop on the Square in Denton, Mad World Records, a couple of weeks ago.

    It's not "My Old Familiar Friend" but that's not a bad thing... different but very good.

    1. Benson is the man. I have a couple of posts on him, but the first one is here:

      I've been spinning "What Kind of World" for several months, though, to be on the lookout for a posting in this project.

      I like Mad World Records, too. That's where I picked up Oneohtrix Point Never's "Replica" at the end of last year.

    2. Finally plugged Benson into the tree:

  2. Oh yeah... and kudos on the tongue-in-cheek retrospective title...

    I love a good insider reference.