Friday, July 19, 2024

Jellyfish 2: Spilt Milk

The Bellybutton album and videos certainly created a buzz for Jellyfish boys Andy Sturmer and Roger Manning. They got a chance to write some songs for the first Ringo Starr album in ten years, and were even courted briefly by Brian Wilson’s team. Certainly their label wanted the band to keep going, except that they weren’t really a band anymore. Chris Manning never wanted to be a bass player anyway, and Jason Falkner realized the other two weren’t going to let him do anything but play guitar at their direction, so he bolted.

Undaunted, the dynamic duo hunkered down in the studio in their Scooby Doo-inspired wardrobe with the guys who produced the debut, tapping Lyle Workman and the soon-to-be ubiquitous Jon Brion for the lead guitars and T-Bone Wolk to handle the better bass parts. The result was Spilt Milk, which doubled down on their quirky touches and daddy issues in the lyrics by piling on religious commentary and ceaseless references to cake frosting and other sugars, delivering a tour de force in album production. Some have suggested there is a rock opera in there, which may or may not be true; perhaps the song titles written in Alpha-Bits cereal in, yes, spilt milk on the back cover were intended to deflate any pomposity.

Whatever the real intention, we do seem to be dealing with a series of dreams. “Hush” perversely starts us off with a lullaby, the layered vocals an overt homage to Queen. The orchestral touches are misleading, as “Joining A Fan Club” jolts everyone awake with straightahead rock, the snide lyrics alluding to both pop stars and televangelists. Roger gets to open “Sebrina, Paste And Plato” (the latter word likely used to avoid paying the Play-Doh manufacturer any royalties), one of the most elaborate songs ever to depict grade school at its most garish, kinda like “Getting Better” filtered through the Muppets. The silliness abates with the sublime “New Mistake”, another master production that pulls out all the stops, complete with key change for the bridge and Harrisonian guitar solo, all the while relating a playlet about a surprise pregnancy that spans generations. “The Glutton Of Sympathy” most resembles the songs on Bellybutton, loaded as it is with haunting melodic phrases, and so does “The Ghost At Number One”. The heaviest track the Beach Boys never recorded, complete with a nod to “Cabin Essence” over the fade, it had a truly dark video to match, and predicted even more dead rock stars. While it was written back before the first album, “Bye, Bye, Bye” melds Oktoberfest with “Those Were The Days” by way of Supertramp. The best parts of the song are still the vocal motif used as the intro and after the instrumental break.

It’s back to loud angry rock (and more Queen references) with “All Is Forgiven”, its dense sound burying some very delicate musical lines, escalating into a wash of echo that abruptly cuts off with the next mood switch into “Russian Hill”. Based around a dreamy approach derived from Nick Drake, it occupies a similar palate-cleansing mood-changer slot as “Bedspring Kiss” on the last album, but it’s a much better song and arrangement, the pedal steel guitar the perfect touch. Then it’s off to Nilsson territory with “He’s My Best Friend”, a not-too-subtle ode to onanism with an even more overt steal in the title. It’s a joke that wears thin, but the majestic kiss-off “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late” redeems it. (This is a good place to remind the listener that what sounds like a big band—anywhere on the album—was actually pieced together instrument by instrument and expertly mixed.) Another Harrisonian solo bookends the tune, to the point that we don’t always realize “Brighter Day” has started. The “Cabin Essence” banjo returns, in between carousel sounds and circus effects used to illustrate more of the horror than fun of life in the big top. Andy goosesteps toward the increasingly plodding denouement, and another Hollywood flourish brings us right back to where we came in on track one.

For the Split Milk tour, they drafted bass player Tim Smith to wear a hideous green corduroy suit with odd lapels and matching Prince Valiant haircut, while young Eric Dover was brought in to shred on guitar and leer at the girls in the front row. The stage was decked out with tinsel streamers like a high school dance and a working Lite-Brite displaying the band’s logo. Roger would occasionally come out from behind his rig to bash a guitar, particularly on their cover of Badfinger’s “No Matter What”. (Sadly, this was not included among the demos and live recordings added to the album’s eventual expansion.)

But it wasn’t enough to keep the band together, and rather attempt to make an even better record, Jellyfish dried up on the sand. Andy Sturmer was clearly happier making music than promoting it, and went on to a successful career working with Japanese musicians and scoring animated television, giving absolutely zero interviews in the time since. Roger Manning tried continuing as Imperial Drag with Eric Dover (who’d just finished a stint with Slash’s Snakepit) and eventually ended up in Beck’s touring band. While there he crossed paths with Jason Falkner, who was in the brief supergroup The Grays with Jon Brion before embarking on a prolific solo career of his own in between sessions (including one Paul McCartney album). Most recently, Manning, Dover, and Smith put out a series of three four-song EPs as The Lickerish Quartet, all released during Covid, and eventually compiled onto a CD in Japan, after which the project ended.

In the absence of a highly unlikely band reunion, Jellyfish endures as one of those bands who knew how to fill up both sides of a Maxell 90 with melodies that will stick in your brain. Some bands can barely fill one. (Those seeking even more from the band’s brief arc will want to look out for 2002’s mega-rare Fan Club box set, which includes much of the Omnivore bonuses and then some, the Radio Jellyfish compilation and Live At Bogart’s set, and the double-disc Stack-a-Tracks, which took the lead yet again from the Beach Boys by presenting predominantly instrumental mixes of both studio albums.)

Jellyfish Spilt Milk (1993)—
2015 Omnivore reissue: same as 1993, plus 25 extra tracks

Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Jellyfish 1: Bellybutton

Nostalgia for the Summer of Love was barely over when kids too young to remember it started forming bands and making albums. These people came of age at a time when their biggest musical influences were the Partridge Family and the Banana Splits, and embraced as much day-glo plaid and corduroy they could find at thrift shops. For a couple years at the start of the ‘90s this scene was dominated by Jellyfish, four photogenic guys who probably wished they could’ve tried out for 1987’s New Monkees failure of a TV show. They could easily have been found guilty of completely ripping off Redd Kross if more people knew that band, and if their own music wasn’t so good.

Most of the music came from the collaboration of Andy Sturmer, standing drummer and lead vocalist with cheekbones, and Roger Manning, who mostly stuck to electric pianos onstage and shrugged his dreadlocks out of the way. Guitarist Jason Falkner played some of the bass on the band’s Bellybutton debut; the rest was handled by jazz boy John Patitucci or Steve MacDonald of the aforementioned Redd Kross. Once they started touring, Roger’s brother Chris took the bass gig in true Johnny Bravo fashion. All four went on the promo trail, and were interviewed wearing floppy hats while blowing soap bubbles and licking giant carnival lollipops.

Their image was a shoebox out of which the album spilled. After a MacGuffin of a churchy organ, the dark tale in “The Man I Used To Be” shuffles in all angry and tense. This is not power pop by the numbers, and neither is the harmonica solo from the guy who played on the Sanford And Son and Rockford Files themes—as well as “Good Vibrations”—but maybe that’s why they chose him. The hook-laden “That Is Why” is similarly edgy, but breaks free during the choruses for a better pop song. “The King Is Half-Undressed” is where most people would have heard them first, via a striking video that depicted the band members among pinwheels, hula hoops, and bubble gum, when objects weren’t flying in or out of the top of a magician’s hat. Even without that, the tune kicks, with lots of little touches, even if it does meander in the middle. “I Wanna Stay Home” veers on adult contemporary, but it still fits with everything else here. Footsteps lead into a room where a sumptuous piano ballad is getting support from a Hammond organ for a track we’d love to hear the rest of someday. Instead, it shifts abruptly to the swampy suburban horror of “She Still Loves Him”, wherein Jason gets to stretch. (His touches are terrific throughout the album.)

A lot of these songs were certainly made with the intention of sounding great on a stereo, but things heat up on side two. The frenetic “All I Want Is Everything” was made for the stage, complete with big crashing ending. It’s a fine Cheap Trick-style rocker, despite the keyboard trumpet lines. It segues quickly into the Beatlesque “Now She Knows She’s Wrong” (via harpsichord, bass, harmonies, and firebell right out of “Penny Lane”, but the resemblance stops there), which is also short enough to be a hit single but wasn’t. “Bedspring Kiss” is the furthest departure, incorporating bossa nova beats and strings, a Coral sitar, that harmonica again, and a cocktail interlude for five long minutes. Besides being super-catchy, “Baby’s Coming Back” is also notable for its video, wherein the boys briefly got to be their own Saturday morning cartoon. And if you still don’t hear the Partridge Family influence, check out the harpsichord tag over the coda. “Calling Sarah” pulls in lots of influences, particularly the Beach Boys and the Zombies in the choruses, for a strong finale. They display some wonderful detours and dynamics here, and just when it starts getting good, the album ends.

Bellybutton remains a unique grab-bag of toe-tapping pop-rock. In addition to the songwriting, much credit should go to co-producers Albhy Galuten, who’d gotten gold records with the Bee Gees, and Jack Joseph Puig, who would get lots of work throughout the ‘90s and beyond. And despite its obvious retro touches, it doesn’t sound dated. For the most part. (We’ve stated how visual image was a big part of their brand. The album’s cover built on a landscape most recently used by Prince, while the longbox—remember those?—went for a more literal approach. This last touch was not carried over when the album was expanded some 25 years later by adding live recordings plus a second disc full of fully fleshed-out demos.)

Jellyfish Bellybutton (1990)—
2015 Omnivore reissue: same as 1990, plus 26 extra tracks

Friday, July 12, 2024

Queen 10: Flash Gordon

Most major bands were excited when they were tapped to provide a full soundtrack for a film, and Queen got their chance with the mega-budget cult classic Flash Gordon. They even took time out while making The Game to work on it.

When the soundtrack album came out, fans may have been disappointed to find it was just that: music for the background of the movie, used as counterpoints to the onscreen action, and not meant to swamp the dialogue. And this album has lots and lots of dialogue. While each band member gets credit for the tracks they spearheaded, and worked on individually, the orchestral touches were not provided by any of the band, and don’t sound like them anyway.

The album is bookended by the two closest things to actual songs, being that they have distinct sets of lyrics, sung by Freddie Mercury. “Flash’s Theme” was the basis for the single, and probably the one piece most people have heard from the album. The chorus is fairly obvious, but unfortunately the slower “just a man” section isn’t exploited more throughout the rest. “The Hero” is the closing piece, loaded with guitars and drums, which of course goes back to repeat most of “Flash’s Theme” before ending with, yes, an explosion.

But in between, there is just music that would probably resonate more with those who’ve seen the movie more than once. Timbales and space effects abound, and the band certainly got over their earlier stated disdain for synthesizers. Most of these tracks are fleeting, less than two minutes apiece, and run seamlessly together with few noticeable gaps. There are a few standouts, like the very new-wavey “Football Fight”, which accompanies the scene in which our hero picks off the enemy’s minions with his gridiron skills (not really much of a stretch, as Flash was a polo player in the original comic strip). “Execution Of Flash” is a brief guitar theme, played not by Brian May but John Deacon, yet there’s no mistaking Brian’s touch on his arrangement of Wagner’s well-known “Wedding March”. “The Kiss” is very much a movie theme, with impossibly high vocals from Freddie. “Flash To The Rescue” and “Marriage Of Dale And Ming” recycle the familiar parts of “Flash’s Theme”, as does the reprise, of course, while “Battle Theme” is a precursor to “The Hero”. (Halfway through that, we hear a character intone, “Who wants to live forever?”—which would become another movie song one day.)

The Flash Gordon film failed to launch a franchise, so this relatively short album remains part of that failure. The 1991 CD added just a modern hip-hop dance remix of “Flash’s Theme” that was pretty stupid, but the bonus disc in the expansion twenty years later at least tried to put the emphasis back onto the music. The single version of “Flash” is shorter than the album track but includes dialogue not on the album, yet still manages to encapsulate the whole thing. The “revisited” mix of “The Hero” puts more emphasis on the vocal and instrumental parts, and while there are still some sound effects, it’s a better track overall. The early version of “The Kiss” is simply wordless vocal and piano, followed by a piano-driven “Football Fight”. Live performances of “Flash” and “The Hero” from the following year are good, and should sate anyone who really needs to hear the songs again.

Queen Flash Gordon (1980)—2
1991 Hollywood reissue: same as 1980, plus 1 extra track
2011 remaster: same as 1980, plus 6 extra tracks

Tuesday, July 9, 2024

Richard Wright 2: Broken China

One of the best things to come out of the post-Roger version of Pink Floyd was the re-emergence of Rick (as he was going by now) Wright, in the band onstage as well as in the studio, adding those iconic keyboard touches everywhere. “Wearing The Inside Out” was nobody’s favorite track on The Division Bell, but it sure was nice to hear his voice again after being silent for so long. Therefore the idea of a solo album coming so soon after the Pulse live album was certainly appealing.

At least it was until the album came out. Broken China is a dour collection of tracks, half of which have vocals, few of which are upbeat, even the ones with dance rhythms. And for good reason. It was originally intended to be entirely instrumental, but as the overall inspiration was that of a “friend”—later to be revealed as Wright’s wife—being treated for clinical depression, he felt words and vocals would be needed. The musicians are top-notch, of course, with Floyd auxiliaries Anthony Moore (who wrote most of the lyrics, and it turns out the wife’s therapist did some too) and Tim Renwick, plus Dominic Miller, Pino Palladino, Manu Katché, Kate St. John, and a special vocalist on two tracks. When he himself sings, he predicts the 21st century timber of Brian Eno’s voice.

The album is presented in four parts, the first representing childhood, illustrated by a teddy bear with its head nearly torn off. “Breaking Water” is a mostly ambient track used as an introduction, much like the last two Floyd albums. There’s a startling switch to the “Humpty Dance”-style backing track for “Night Of A Thousand Furry Toys”. Moore literally phones in a vocal, and somehow a music box tinkles its way into the mix at the end. The very somber “Hidden Fear” moves into the mechanized sound of “Runaway”, composed solely by Moore, who apparently did the programming.

We move to adolescence, supposedly, which is mostly instrumental. “Unfair Ground” is another ambient transition, but we don’t need that fairground sample (already heard in “Poles Apart”) inserted for some reason. “Satellite” is a lengthy showcase for Tim Renwick, which seems to get edgier and edgier until Rick comes into sing “Woman Of Custom”. The chorus redeems the song, with subliminal harmonies from Pino’s wife, who used to back up Paul Young. “Interlude” is a slow piano piece, and welcome.

Part three apparently involves depression directly, as hinted at by the pointedly eerie “Black Cloud”, and “Far From The Harbour Wall” piles on the sadness with frank lyrics and minimal metaphors. The mostly ambient “Drowning” intensifies it, but Sinéad O’Connor gives voice to “Reaching For The Rail”, sung in first person, with Rick providing sympathetic counterpoint in his own verse and in the last.

The final segment addresses resolution, and there is indeed some relief here. “Blue Room In Venice” is more of an interlude than the verses would suggest, but he’s started to let his voice reach higher notes. “Sweet July” is mildly majestic, with Gilmour-style guitar (no, still not him) and rolling cymbals matching the cavorting dolphin in the booklet. The energy of “Along The Shoreline” can’t help but recall “Run Like Hell”, and we’d like to say it represents a “Breakthrough”, but that’s the title and theme of the final track, a more contemplative but still powerful statement sung by Sinéad. (Six years later, Rick would sing this onstage with Gilmour.) And with that, the album ends.

We haven’t found any documentation as to whether Broken China actually helped anyone suffering from depression, but that’s none of our business. It’s not a Pink Floyd album, so its appeal outside the fanbase is fleeting and limited. We have found its charms; proceed with caution.

Rick Wright Broken China (1996)—3

Friday, July 5, 2024

Neil Young 71: Early Daze

Way back in 2017, when the Neil Young Archives launched as an interactive streaming website, the timeline feature included virtual Post-It notes as placeholders for various projects that would, we would presume, be someday released. One of those notes read simply Early Daze, which we knew from his 2012 memoir Waging Heavy Peace was a collection of recordings made with Crazy Horse in 1969. This is basically what Neil was up to after Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere came out, and right around the time Ahmet Ertegun suggested that Crosby, Stills & Nash add him as a second guitarist, which was only one reason why the project changed. And it only took him twelve years to get it out of the pipeline and into the world.

All of these songs have been heard before, but not all in these versions. For starters, “Dance Dance Dance” was already on the first Archives box, as was “Everybody’s Alone”, said to be an alternate mix, but that’s negligible. “Come On Baby Let’s Go Downtown” doesn’t quite have the bite of the live version, just as “Winterlong” would be improved onstage as well as in a later recording. Both still sound excellent here. Yet another stab at “Wonderin’” was likely left aside because Neil botched the lyrics. “Cinnamon Girl” is the mono single mix, which favors Danny Whitten’s vocal, but has the familiar guitar coda tagged on.

The biggest surprise is Danny’s “Look At All The Things”, with Neil harmonizing and not quite at the level of the perfect take on the first Crazy Horse album two years later. It turns out “Helpless” was tried first with the Horse before CSNY got it, and has a slightly faster but still laid-back lope. “Birds” is the same take as the alternate B-side version, but here includes the second verse skipped on the 45. Then it’s back to the beginning of the year for the first take of “Down By The River”, this time with supposedly the original scratch vocal.

The music on Early Daze is not incendiary; there are a lot of acoustic guitars, some country influence, and Jack Nitzsche on electric piano. While everything has been freshly mixed—as opposed to done and dusted in 1969—there’s a rehearsal vibe to a lot of it, as opposed to sounding like polished album tracks. But if you take these songs, and replace “Down By The River” and “Cinnamon Girl” with “Oh Lonesome Me” and “I Believe In You”, you’d have a pretty decent second Neil Young and Crazy Horse album. (You can even leave the studio chatter in.) But then we wouldn’t have Déjà Vu and After The Gold Rush as we know them. Of course if Danny had lived, things would have been completely different. This album is a testament to him, as he sings with Neil on nearly every track.

Neil Young With Crazy Horse Early Daze (2024)—

Tuesday, July 2, 2024

Grateful Dead 20: Built To Last

In the late ‘80s the Dead were arguably bigger than they’d ever been, and largely hadn’t changed much of their business plan in the decades thus far. So when they decided to record a follow-up to their smash hit of two years before, they didn’t dip into the well that had built up over the previous gap between studio projects. Built To Last consisted of songs that had been written since that last album and, in keeping with tradition, were subject to questionable mixing that didn’t do them any favors. Part of the problem was the embracing of MIDI technology, which combined with synthesizers for a very cold, non-organic sound. Also, for the first time Brent Mydland’s songs outnumbered both Bob Weir’s and Jerry Garcia’s, and one of our favorites, “Don’t Need Love”, wasn’t among them.

Confusing things quite a bit, the cassette and CD versions of the album had an extra track not on the LP, and all three running orders were different. Now that the CD has become standard, that’s the sequence we’re going to explore here, and frankly, it’s the one that works best.

“Foolish Heart” was the first single, and more enjoyable than the production would suggest. Even with that, it sets a low bar the rest of the album doesn’t always meet. To wit: Brent’s “Just A Little Light” is just a little too adult contemporary, not helped by a vocal that resembles that of Dan Hill. A raspy Jerry sings the title track, something of a continuation of the theme of “Touch Of Grey”, but it works. “Blow Away” is a better Brent song, with a cool hook on the keyboards and guitars that complement the vocal well. Bob finally turns up with “Victim Or The Crime”, written with the guy probably best known for playing Beef in Phantom Of The Paradise. This one is tough to unpack, as the last half is slathered with effects too cliché for an album released on Halloween, but there’s a good song in there somewhere.

“We Can Run” was left off the vinyl version, which is mind-boggling because it’s not only one of the better songs here, and it’s one of Brent’s. Jerry (with Robert Hunter) goes three-for-three with “Standing On The Moon”, an affecting meditation on humanity, history, and legacy. While it only follows on the CD, the placement of “Picasso Moon”—another challenging Bob construction—is odd. Interestingly, both of Bob’s songs here seem patterned on his winning pair on the last album, and pale in comparison. And while “I Will Take You Home” is a lovely sentimental lullaby, the windup music box theme and fake strings jar with the rest of the album. It does not belong here.

Save the occasions where they simply played—Workingman’s Dead, American Beauty, even In The Dark—the band clearly never learned how to work in the studio. Certainly from the ‘70s on, “production” just didn’t work for them. But that didn’t matter. They promoted Built To Last by going on tour like they always did, where the songs breathed and sounded better. There was, however, a unique promotion in the form of Dead In A Deck, which packaged your choice of the album on CD or cassette with official Dead-branded playing cards. And as it turned out, this was the last studio album they would complete. (Rather than provide a peek into the recording sessions, the bonuses on the later expanded CD were all live tracks: twelve-minute takes on “Blow Away” with an extended rap and an off-pitch “Foolish Heart”, and a cover of Rodney Crowell’s “California Earthquake”.)

Grateful Dead Built To Last (1989)—3
1989 CD: same as 1989, plus 1 extra track
2006 expanded CD: same as 1989 CD, plus 3 extra tracks

Friday, June 28, 2024

Peter Gabriel 14: Rated PG and Flotsam And Jetsam

Nearly two decades into the 21st century, Peter Gabriel was still touring occasionally, and releasing the occasional one-off track, but there was no sign of new album. And for someone who was always on the cutting edge of technology and interaction, he was one of the longest holdouts among musicians of his stature to allow his music on streaming services, specifically Spotify. (Money does talk, after all.) When he did finally relent, the floodgates opened, kind of.

By this time he’d racked up more than an album’s worth of songs that had been featured on movie soundtracks, so Rated PG was a very inspired compilation, with a clever title and hilarious artwork to match. It was first released as a picture disc for a Record Store Day, but eventually made it to streaming and CD. It doesn’t include every song he wrote or supplied for a soundtrack, but it does collect some worthwhile rarities.

In the time since Up he had become a father again, but his contribution to a Babe sequel predated that. “That’ll Do” was written by Randy Newman but thankfully sung by Peter with instrumental help from Paddy Maloney of the Chieftains and the Black Dyke Mills (brass) Band. Ten years later, the more upbeat “Down To Earth” was a collaboration with composer Thomas Newman for WALL-E. Then there’s the more archetypal “This Is Party Man”, an alternate version of a track used in Virtuosity, credited as a co-write with Tori Amos, but we’re not sure exactly how. “The Book Of Love” of course was a springboard for the Scratch My Back project, and it’s still lovely, but it’s followed by “Taboo”, written with and sung by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan from the Natural Born Killers soundtrack.

“Everybird” was the most recent track here, a sweetly melancholy track for an obscure animated film, then it’s all the way back to 1984 for “Walk Through The Fire”, which was overshadowed on the Against All Odds soundtrack by the title track, which was a smash hit by Phil Collins. (Then again, nobody paid attention to the song Mike Rutherford contributed.) “Speak (Bol)” is from a more recent political thriller, and has some anthemic qualities, as well as vocals in Urdu sung by Atif Aslam, while “Nocturnal” is from an even more obscure French film. It’s a moody, not necessarily dark track, though the lyrics suggest otherwise. Perhaps as a sop to those who want something familiar, “In Your Eyes” closes the set in an alternate mix—not the same one from the Say Anything soundtrack, but incorporating elements from other versions.

Despite being all over the place genre-wise, Rated PG holds together well, though it certainly could have been more comprehensive. This was addressed in a big way in late 2019 by Flotsam And Jetsam, a digital-only compilation running nearly six hours. Despite not being a physical release, it was separated into three “discs”, the first of which would fit on a single CD if they sold one. It begins with his cover of “Strawberry Fields Forever” from a very strange film, then continues through B-sides mostly presenting intriguing alternate versions of tracks from his first four solo albums, as well as such rarities as “Teddy Bear”, “Soft Dog”, “Across The River”, and “Here Comes The Flood” in German.

Each of the other “discs” exceeds two hours. The second covers the period bookended by So and Us; most of these tracks are remixes, which can get repetitive and tedious, but then there are highlights like “Quiet Steam”, “Don’t Break This Rhythm”, and “Curtains”. The last segment covers a 22-year period, dominated at first by tribute album appearances and other soundtrack contributions, then by remixes from Up. Yet it closes with new material of sorts: two completed mixes of the So-era work in progress “Courage”; the standalone single “I’m Amazing”, inspired by Muhammed Ali and released in tribute after the man’s death; and “The Veil”, written for Oliver Stone’s biopic of Edward Snowden.

There were still some missing pieces, like his songs from the Gremlins and Philadelphia soundtracks, but at least everything sounded good. Despite the demand, it likely wouldn’t have been the most lucrative set, so people can skip around when streaming, or cherrypick to their hearts’ content via Bandcamp.

Peter Gabriel Rated PG (2019)—3
Peter Gabriel
Flotsam And Jetsam (2019)—
Current CD availability: none; streaming only