Friday, October 5, 2012

The Jellyfish Family Tree Part 2: "Spilt Milk" at Lunch

In 1993, I took a hiatus from my undergraduate studies and moved back to Austin.  By this point, I had listened to Bellybutton hundreds of times, and I was fortunate to pick up a promo copy of Jellyfish's follow-up.  There was a lot that I liked about Spilt MilkIt had the same amazing songwriting, and in terms of its production, it was a major step forward from Bellybutton. Initially, however, I did not connect with it in the same way as I did its predecessor, mostly, I think, because I did not share it amongst a circle of friends. Coming from the close quarters of Bruce Hall and its denizens to living at home with the fam, I had relatively little time to hang out and listen to music with a close community of people.

I did notice, however, through my fellow Blockbuster Music employees and the friends I did periodically hang out with that year, that the microcosm of Jellyfish fandom in Bruce Hall was not alone.  Inexplicably, however, the band remained the secret favorite of dedicated music connoisseurs only.

I also think that their lack of success also took a subtle toll on the band.  The sublimely dark commentary on "life as we know it" that pervaded Bellybutton was replaced by a somewhat more cynical and sarcastic undertone on Spilt Milk. Additionally, there were some significant personnel changes.  There was now a dedicated bass player and background vocalist in Tim Smith, but Jason Falkner, who played guitar and sang backup on the first album, left the band to pursue his own solo career.  A close look at the liner notes indicated that Jon Brion provided backup vocals and guitars on Spilt Milk, so in my mind, he was the “new” guitarist.  In reality, however, he clearly was not considered to be stepping into Falkner’s shoes as a full member, and instead, guitarist Eric Dover joined the touring lineup.  In other words, Jellyfish's roster was less inclusive, but the band's sound expanded.  This inverse relationship led me to think that the band had simply become a studio project.

Sebrina, Paste And Plato by Jellyfish on Grooveshark

All of these factors set me slightly ill at ease, but still, I put Spilt Milk in regular rotation while I was working at Blockbuster Music and advocated for it at every turn.  At one point, the staff was offered promotional wristbands to this funny little thing called South by Southwest. In light of the spectacle SXSW has become, its relative scale was almost humorous. Just a few clubs were participating, but In retrospect, I did not really take advantage of the access that $25 wristband granted me. I picked it up quite casually, with the sole intention of seeing Jellyfish for free at Liberty Lunch.

Austin music history reveres Liberty Lunch, and granted, a lot of amazing music happened there. It was the site of my very first live gig ever, so perhaps I should revere it, as well.  In my memory, however, it was pretty much like a lot of mid-level music venues. It was a little dank and smelly, with picnic tables for furniture. In any case, seeing Jellyfish there was probably the last time I went before it was torn down in the late 90s and a thankless high-rise apartment building was plopped on its gravesite.

I was a bit dismissive as the band took the stage, but I immediately noticed that the rumors were true: drummer Andy Sturmer was indeed the lead singer, and he did indeed play standing up at the front of the stage. Awesome. I was taken aback, however, as keyboardist Roger Joseph Manning Jr. walked away from his keyboards to play guitar for All is Forgiven , a surprisingly cacophonous opening statement. My initial incredulity gave way to awe, however, as, softly and precisely, the backup vocals made their first entry.

(Quality on the above vid is a little spotty, and its not from the Liberty Lunch gig, but we're lucky to have access to anything Jellyfish twenty years down the pipe.  Hopefully, you get the idea)

It was one of a handful of times in my life where my idea about what was musically possible instantaneously expanded. I simply could not believe my ears. I craned my neck to see if anyone had a finger on a keyboard or a foot on a pedal to trigger a sample, but all I saw was four mouths effortlessly singing. Their voices were so precise and blended together so seamlessly that they cohered into an instrumental life of their own, carrying as much weight as single musician on a guitar or keyboard.

Queen was well-known for their vocal prowess, but I’m not sure that, even at the height of their arena-rock prowess, they could have reproduced what Jellyfish did in Liberty Lunch that night. It was readily apparent that their individual and group musicianship far surpassed the genre in which they were playing. Once I appreciated the incredible virtuosity of Jellyfish’s touring lineup for the Spilt Milk, tour, and the fact that they could match the sound of their studio work in a live setting, it reframed the album as a recorded piece.  Bellybutton was the album the broke the band for me, and is still probably my favorite, but today that distinction is only by a narrow margin.

Within a year, the band had quietly broken up and the various members spread out into the music underground.  All of them stayed active, however, and for music fans willing to do the research, it is quite apparent that the incredible musicianship that represented Jellyfish has had a far-reaching influence.  I chased them from one project to the next, which led me down a musical path that I am still following today.

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  1. Don't forget, the other "replacement" guitarist on the record was Lyle Workman (Beck, "Six Feet Under" score) who is a bad ass himself.

    The challenge with the band was the relationship between Andy and Roger, which was volatile to say the least. They both have strong opinions and when they didn't have Jason to shove on anymore, they took to each other. This is a dual account given to me by both Jason and Roger, I never talked to Andy beyond "yo, sup!". I have a friend who is a primary friend of Andy's who basically says the same thing. Supremely talented folks.

  2. Thanks for posting this, Jeff. I saw Jellyfish at Edgefest and felt the same. So much music and so few musicians. Huge sound. Still blows me away.

  3. I had the pleasure of seeing Jellyfish live on three occasions. The first was the summer of '91 when they opened for The Black Crowes at the late great Bronco Bowl. They came back out onstage during the Crowes set and sang backup to 'She Talks to Angels.' Pretty sweet.

    Second was the Edgefest Brad mentioned, and third was when they opened for Tears for Fears @ Deep Ellum Live.

    All fantastic shows and (as a musician) quite humbling.

  4. I was there at the Deep Ellum Live show. That was the perfect intimate venue to see both Jellyfish, and Orzabal TFF, thanks for reminding me! BTW, many (myself included)compare Jellyfish to Queen (vocals) and Wings/Beatles (pop/psychedlic scope), I was listening to Genesis "Trick of the Tail" and heard many influences. What a gift Jellyfish was/is.

  5. Don't leave out the band The Grays.