Desert Island Discs: Spilt Milk, Jellyfish

Spilt Milk Album coverWhen Jellyfish released their second album, Spilt Milk, in February 1993, critics didn’t know what comparison to make of the band. They had released their first album, Bellybutton, to rave reviews and even had a Top 40 hit with the catchy “Baby’s Coming Back,” which wasn’t even one of the better tracks. The melodies flowed, the harmonies shook you down to your core.

Again, it was Jeff Whatley who introduced me to the band, handing me a copy of “The Glutton of Sympathy” on cassette and saying, “You’ve got to listen to this.” I found a somber acoustic ballad that added layer upon layer, with a hopeful chorus and a bridge that sounded Beatlesque. The lead singer sounded like a rock n’ roll singer. Who were these guys?

I quickly bought Spilt Milk and was floored by what I heard. Jellyfish, in a sense, had out-Beatled the Beatles. It was Queen meets ELO meets Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys meets 10cc – all of the band’s idols rolled into one album.

But then I heard circus music. And kids singing playground chants. And a polka. And a lullaby. I gave up; who the hell did these guys think they were?

Spilt Milk was an ambitious, innovative, almost apocalyptic album that tested the limits of pop music and, at times, the human ear. It began with a music box fading in, a rush of instrumentation a la “A Day In the Life,” stopped suddenly by a sweet a cappella lullaby. “Hush,” with such gorgeous harmonies reminiscent of the Beach Boys – was a stunning way to start an album.

Then, as soon as you were relaxed and asleep, BAM! A heavy metal guitar riff ransacked your dreams and introduced a … piano? … as lead singer Andy Sturmer launched into “Joining a Fan Club,” a bombastic, in-your-face ode to a fallen rock star and his fans. This song had it all – guitar solos racing, feedback, several key changes and what sounded like 20-part harmony. Ear candy. And the wonderful heartaches began.

“Fan Club” was followed by “Sebrina, Paste and Plato,” a rock operetta that began with a piano reminiscent of a children’s television show. The playful verse was followed by a rousing refrain that sounded like a bar full of drunken sailors, which was answered by a child’s voice saying, “Kool-Aid, sandwiches and chips for all the shoulders!” The drunken sailors replied, “Lunch is on the table, soon dessert is on the floor!”

Huh?

But then the chorus, the lovely, bouncy sing-song chorus took over (“So serene, Sebrina makes me feel so serene …”), found its way into your heart, and you didn’t have a care in the world anymore. By the end of the song, I was dizzy from the short, manic trip, and I didn’t care what the lyrics meant.

A Perfect Side 1

The genius of Spilt Milk was in the first six songs – one masterpiece after another. “New Mistake” provided an earful of guitars that sounded so bittersweet, complemented by a 10cc-like chorus. The aforementioned “Glutton of Sympathy” was the classic that never was – a beautiful mid-tempo ballad that was made for radio. It was followed by the ill-fated first single, “The Ghost at Number One” – Queen resurrected. All that was needed was Freddie Mercury, and even Sturmer’s strong voice held up well to those comparisons. Then in the same song, I heard a bridge in a different key that turned the whole track upside down – multi-layered harmonies over a harpsichord. Now the group was doing its best Beach Boys imitation. It was dead-on, really.

The rest of the album continued the voyage through the looking-glass. “Bye Bye Bye” was a polka, complete with accordion and oom-pah-pahs. “All is Forgiven” was a thundering, wonderful, noisy anthem accentuated occasionally by a complete stop in the music filled in with operatic, falsetto Queen/ELO harmonies for just two seconds at a time. The song ended abruptly into the quiet “Russian Hill,” an homage to Henry Mancini laced with strings and a flute.

How do you end such an album? With a circus tune, of course. “Brighter Day” was a slow, plodding song that sounds like it came straight from a calliope. You could almost hear children laughing and barkers peddling cotton candy. The song ended just as the album began: with a music box and the same note that started “Hush.” You had come full circle, but you felt as if you had been on the merry-go-round for 45 minutes, and it was about to start again.

The album was magnificent. Forty-eight mixed tracks of voices, strings, brass, flutes, banjos, chimes, theremins, harpsichords, accordions, balalaikas and other noise squeezed into 12 songs.

And it tanked on the charts.

Jammed smack in the middle of the grunge era, Spilt Milk presented a problem for Charisma Records, who didn’t know how to market the group. Try pitching an album as varied and intense as Spilt Milk alongside Nirvana and Pearl Jam and see how far it gets you. It got the album as high as No. 164 on the Hot 200 chart.

But I couldn’t get enough of it. I played it over and over on my stereo, savoring the instrumentation, vocals and pure genius that Sturmer and Roger Manning displayed in their songwriting. And although I didn’t know it at the time, it would pave the way for me to discover another group that sounded a lot like Jellyfish – a band called the Beatles.

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