I’m not sure there’s much point in reviewing Fan Club, the four-CD box set from Jellyfish that just arrived in my mailbox last week.
Strangely, the most compelling argument both for and against reviewing this set is its own existence. Jellyfish was a California band that only lasted four years (1990-1993) and made a mere two albums. Their total recorded output doesn’t even amount to an hour and a half, and though they experienced brief flickers of interest from both radio and MTV, they never really broke out beyond their small core audience.
It’s a testament to that audience that Fan Club, which collects four and a half hours of demos, unreleased tracks and live cuts, exists at all. It was manufactured to demand by tiny Not Lame Records from Colorado, the product of a one-time pressing that was almost entirely sold out before the first sets shipped. As stated over and over again in the beautifully designed booklet, Fan Club is really the result of eight and a half years of fan demand, proof that if you clamor hard enough for something, someone somewhere will listen.
And that alone is a good reason to give the band and Not Lame some press here, but the set itself sort of defeats that purpose. As the title suggests, the only people who will likely be willing to fork out 60 bucks for 80 tracks of curiosities and concert documents are the fans. If you’ve never heard of Jellyfish, you’re not going to start with Fan Club, nor should you. Reviewing this box doesn’t make any sense, in a way, because practically everyone that wants one already has one.
I’m going to anyway, because I think it’s a crime that more people didn’t flock to Jellyfish when they were around. Both 1990’s Bellybutton and 1993’s Spilt Milk are perfect pop albums. Not just good, not even just fantastic, but perfect. They’re ornate without being overstuffed, intelligent without being fussy, joyful and melodic without being silly, and defiantly musical without losing accessibility. These are records in which everyone, from the least discriminating teeny-bopper to the snootiest alt-rock snob, can find something to love.
Bellybutton is perhaps the more accessible of the two, a collection of 10 short songs that take the listener on a deceptively tricky journey. The amazing a cappella breakdown in “The King is Half-Undressed,” for example, is so flawlessly executed that it feels effortless, and the melodic shifts in “She Still Loves Him” flow so naturally that you almost miss how well-constructed they are. The songs on Bellybutton serve as a 40-foot-high neon sign announcing the simultaneous arrival of Andy Sturmer and Roger Manning, the Lennon and McCartney of the early ’90s.
The follow-up, Spilt Milk, took two years and cost untold thousands to make. The most expensive album ever released by mini-label Charisma Records, Spilt Milk nearly bankrupted everyone involved, but one listen through and you know they all think it was worth it. The album is a complex compendium of joyous bitterness, a stunning ride that envelops a dozen forms of popular music just on side one. Spilt Milk is 45 minutes of unrelenting bliss disguising a sour heart beneath. And to top all that off, it’s produced so well, so full-color, that you’ll think the rest of your CD collection is in black and white.
It’s worth dwelling for a moment on just how good these albums sound. A lot of bands these days think that by playing softly, then playing loudly, they’re evoking drama. Jellyfish were masters of the art of making your senses sit up in surprise. Just check out “All Is Forgiven” on Spilt Milk – it’s drowned in a sea of noisy, swirling guitars that at one point drop out in a heartbeat, leaving you with only a twinkling music box. Jason Falkner’s dazzling guitar solos on Bellybutton stand out not just because he’s a great player, but because the entire production is so well-mixed that every element is distinct and crystal-clear.
The same production values cannot be found on the two discs of demos that make up half of Fan Club, and that’s to be expected. For fans of these songs, though, it’s fascinating to hear them in their embryonic states. Bellybutton is less of a sonic wonderland in general, so the demos from that period more closely match their official counterparts. It’s fun to note that the chiming bells in “Now She Knows She’s Wrong” were there from the beginning, or that “Bye Bye Bye” was originally slated for the first album. (It ended up on Spilt Milk.) The unreleased tracks are a blast as well, including a foray into sappy pop (“Let This Dream Never End”) and a super-swell tune called “Queen of the U.S.A.” that would have fit well on the album.
Still, if you’re not a fan already, these demos probably won’t have the same effect for you, and you’d be better off with the full album versions anyway. The same goes for the Spilt Milk demos, which are by and large more skeletal than those on Disc One. You can hear the first drafts of the orchestral pieces that bookend the album, marvel at the difference in arrangement on the a cappella “Hush,” and experience a master’s class in audio production by comparing the Fan Club and album versions of “Russian Hill.” That song, more than any other, proves my point – on Spilt Milk, “Russian Hill” is in 3-D, with reverb so thick you can swim through it, and three pedal steel guitar tracks that somehow coalesce into one amazing whole. The demo is flat in comparison, and the descriptions of the album version in the booklet only whet your appetite.
The second half of the Spilt Milk demos is worth it, though, as it includes eight tunes not readily available anywhere else. Of all of them, the epic mini-opera “Ignorance is Bliss,” recorded for Nintendo’s White Knuckle Scorin’ compilation (really), stands out as brilliant. It swoops, ducks, turns and soars while retaining its cartoony feel, and is overall reminiscent of Frank Zappa. The five demos the band recorded for Ringo Starr’s Time Takes Time album are all excellent, with Manning imitating Starr’s vocal style perfectly on two tracks. The disc ends with a fan club recording that contains a piano and vocal version of “The Ghost at Number One,” proving once again that a great song is a great song no matter how it’s played.
The demos are fun, but the other half of Fan Club takes the prize. Jellyfish made fantastic records, and unlike most ornate power-popsters, they pulled their elaborate arrangements off live. I have firsthand knowledge here, as I saw the band in a dingy Providence dive called Club Babyhead in ’93, and they were unreal. It still stands as the best show I have ever seen, bar none. Four guys, crammed into a corner, playing these dense and yet lightweight pop masterpieces that were chaotic and perfectly controlled, and topped off with stunning, flawless four-part harmonies. They rocked, plain and simple.
That experience came rushing back when listening to Fan Club‘s two great live discs. First up is the Bellybutton Tour (called the Innie Through the Outtie Tour) in ’90 and ’91, which found the band deconstructing their own tunes and grafting them to other popular favorites. Included here for the first time is what some fans call the “holy trilogy” of unreleased Jellyfish songs – “Mr. Late,” “Hello” and “Will You Marry Me.” All three of these monsters should have been given the full studio treatment, but they’re all killers live, especially “Mr. Late,” with its largely improvised lyric.
The Spilt Milk tour, documented on Disc Four, included a whole bunch of acoustic dates for radio and TV, and they’re the highlight of the set. I would have paid my $60 just to hear the acoustic version of “That Is Why,” recorded for Philadelphia’s World Cafe radio program. The acoustic tracks serve to fully humanize Jellyfish, whose records often sound unearthly, as if they couldn’t have been made by humans. Live and acoustic, pop anthems like “Joining a Fan Club” enter our atmosphere, burning up everything but their amazing melodies in reentry. These tracks are revelations.
The set concludes with a seven-song set from the Universal Amphitheatre, including a phenomenal reworking of “The Man I Used to Be,” and the final Jellyfish studio track – a version of Harry Nilsson’s “Think About Your Troubles.” All in all, Fan Club provides a unique glimpse behind the curtain at the magician practicing his tricks. As much as I love it, however, I can’t recommend it to anyone who hasn’t heard Bellybutton and Spilt Milk first, because you need to see the trick performed before you find out how it’s done.
That’s okay, though, because Jellyfish’s albums are two of the best you’ll ever buy, masterworks that grow and reveal new dimensions with each listen. Unfortunately, by the time you’re ready to join the Fan Club, it may no longer be waiting for you, considering its limited pressing. This is, from first to last, a project for the fans, for those few who embraced Jellyfish when they first appeared and have been demanding a set like this ever since. So if you’re one of those, and you somehow missed this set, get on over to www.notlame.com and get one quick.
And if you’re not yet a fan, what are you waiting for? A couple of trips through either Bellybutton or Spilt Milk (or both) and you’ll be one. Track them down, buy them, love them.
As for me, I’m grateful to Not Lame, the band and the fans for making this thing possible. It’s all the sweeter knowing that, under the rules of the music business, it should never have happened. Here’s a permanent, loving testament to a brilliant band that too few heard, one that burned brightly and exploded too quickly. Just the fact that Fan Club came together at all is a validation for the fans of this unjustly ignored band, and a rare instance of the well-deserving getting their due despite all the laws of the universe. If that’s not magic, I don’t know what is.
See you in line Tuesday morning.