Tuesday, May 29, 2012

OVERLOOKED CLASSICS: Jellyfish - Spilt Milk

By Steve Jones.

Genres have never not been strange to me. With music especially, I find it nearly impossible to communicate what any particular genre means to me in words. I think it is much easier to point to a piece of music and say, "Yes, that. That is what I think of when I think of _____." When I think of baroque pop, it's Owen Pallett's He Poos Clouds. When I think of shibuya-kei, it's Cornelius' Fantasma. And so on. I imagine when other people think of power pop, they're conjuring images of Weezer or The Replacements, which is fine. But when I need to consider the album that produced the picture-perfect piece of power pop, it is unquestioningly Spilt Milk by Jellyfish.

Let's break power pop down into its components. On one hand, you have pop; on the other, you have power. The "pop" implies music that is forthcoming, fun, and catchy, while the "power" means that the aforementioned elements are rocked up to the proverbial 11. So the perfect power pop album has to be as infectious as it is loud, and Jellyfish accomplish this on Spilt Milk with unparalleled finesse. It's 45 minutes without a single dull moment. 12 songs with not one clunker. This is the work of two gentlemen who burned bright and fast. Andy Sturmer and Roger Joseph Manning Jr. went their separate ways after this album, and I have enjoyed a fair amount of their post-Jellyfish careers, but they were never as strong as they were together on this album.

Spilt Milk often gets compared to the works of Queen and The Beach Boys, and the first track "Hush" is likely the culprit for this. A largely a cappella track, it possesses both Queen's theatrical flair and The Beach Boys' knack for harmony. But what follows is my favorite Jellyfish track, "Joining a Fan Club," which rocks hard and pops hard. It's one of those rare songs where the verse, chorus, and bridge are all equally dominant in their catchiness, and the bridge in particular is notable for both quoting "When You Wish Upon a Star" and ending with a fucking killer instrumental breakdown. I also the lyrical subject matter, which draws a lot of clever and tongue-in-cheek parallels between fanaticism over rock stars and religious belief, with lines like, "He turns me on when he wears that lampshade crown of thorns." It's pretty much one of my Perfect Songs, and I admire everything about it.

That's not to say that the rest of the album is not pure gold as well. The twists and turns of "Sebrina, Paste and Plato" bring to mind Sgt. Pepper's-era Beatles-esque baroque pop. And "New Mistake" is reminiscent of the way a band like ELO or Supertramp could turn a song about a failed relationship into something that's still irresistible to listen to.

I realize here that I'm making a lot of references to other bands in this write-up, which is something I don't like to rely on. I mean, it's appropriate in this case, since Jellyfish are so obviously influenced by a cornucopia of fantastic classic rock bands, but it undermines the other point I'd like to make that the Jellyfish sound is very much its own distinct flavor. For me, there are few key things that define what Jellyfish are, and what make them so exemplary in my ears. One is Andy Sturmers vocals, which are full of sonority and personality. They perfectly adapt to whatever the songs requires, whether it be some soft crooning on "Russian Hill," or some rock-punctuated snark in "The Ghost at Number One." Another component is Roger Joseph Manning Jr.'s keyboard work. Spilt Milk is full of his harpsichords and pianos and synths, and even though they are often not front and center in the mix, they make up an invaluable part of each track. There's also the production, which is crisply crystal clear and allows these intricately-arranged pieces to consistently shine. Now, this is in contrast to a lot of other power pop I've heard, which often favors noisier and fuzzier mixing, but the clean production on Spilt Milk definitely works best for its songs, and it helps further set the album apart.

But what is most important of all is the songwriting, and I am in constant admiration of how complex these pop songs are when you break them down. It's not something you're even going to notice on the first few listens, since the album is by design a easy and pleasant listen, but I don't think any of these tracks fit neatly into your simple verse-chorus-verse structure. On one hand I wouldn't exactly call it progressive pop, but it's definitely pop with a brain. It's pop made by musicians who wanted to create an album that was as sonically interesting as it was immediately accessible and enjoyable, and it succeeds improbably well at both. One of my favorite little attentions to detail is how the last track "Brighter Day" concludes with the same sustained violin note that introduces the opening track.

I hope you've kind of gathered by this point that I really want you to listen to Spilt Milk. Especially if you at all enjoy pop music in the style of rock bands with lots of power, because, like I've said, I think Jellyfish really perfected a genre here. At least, it's everything I want out of a power pop record: strong and catchy melodies, liberal applications of vocal harmony, playful song structures, dense and colorful arrangements, and plenty of moments where the band lets go and just rocks. It's a shame we couldn't hear more from Jellyfish, but Spilt Milk is enough of a masterpiece to immortalize them in my mind.

(Steve Jones is not crying over spilt milk. Nor is his Twitter, @vestenet.)


  1. An album I go back to frequently and a musical influence as well, I've been listening to 'Spilt Milk' all week and, wondering what else was out there in terms of reviews and what not, stumbled upon your piece. Very nice. Then again, we Jones folk do know what we speak of. Cheers.

  2. That we do. Thanks for the kind words!

  3. Awesome write-up Steve. Thank you for sharing.

    Here is a sweet new Jellyfish surprise for 2013, an epic-length audio podcast about the band, including rare interview clips, demos, live acoustic and electric performances and a 20th Anniversary song-by-song celebration of SPILT MILK.

    The Hollywood Gauntlet
    ArenA II: Still Crying Over SPILT MILK

    Link To Show:


    Also on Facebook/iTunes/Twitter/YouTube

    The show is broken up into three parts. Perfect for your next tranquil Sunday drive...

    Still Crying Over SPILT MILK
    a) Who is Jellyfish?
    b) Drinking Spilt Milk
    c) Coda (aka The Where Are They Now File)

    The Hollywood Gauntlet is a feature-length podcast celebrating the art and entertainment of cinema. All the members are huge Jellyfish fans and decided to put this together for the 20th Anniversary of SPILT MILK. So if you like the format, subscribe for free on iTunes and check out some of the film related shows.

    --Summer of '82
    --Dragon vs. Dragon
    --Marvel Assembly Required
    --Dark Nolan Trilogy
    --Stirring Skyfall
    --ArenA: What Happened To STAR WARS