At the very dawn of the ’90s, a semi-successful (if misguided) marketing approach led to brief retro- psychedelic notoriety for Jellyfish, a quirky San Francisco quartet led by multi-instrumentalists Andy Sturmer (mainly vocals and drums) and Roger Manning (mainly keyboards). The two had survived the failure of Beatnik Beatch (a forgettable pop-rock quartet whose one boring indie album—shorn of five tracks and bolstered by four better new songs for its retitled major-label reissue—makes halfbaked attempts at wit while managing to sound like a younger Supertramp) to reinvent themselves as Jellyfish. While the first Jellyfish album’s eye-popping cover art and the band’s absurdly whimsical wardrobe pushed the Summer of Love style, there’s nothing remotely psychedelic about the music contained within. The disparity was unfortunate, because Bellybutton is a fine debut, a pleasant—occasionally wonderful (“The Man I Used to Be,” “Now She Knows She’s Wrong,” the silky “Bedspring Kiss”)—pastiche of pop icons from the Beatles to Squeeze via 10cc, the Beach Boys and Badfinger, all smoothly produced by Jack Joseph Puig and Albhy Galuten.
A three-year hiatus resulted in half the band jumping ship, but also helped germinate a stunning new crop of Sturmer/Manning tunes. Completely wiping away any lingering whiff of psych hype, Spilt Milk is sharper and far more vibrant than its predecessor, with clever hooks galore. Masterfully recorded, arranged and sequenced (Sturmer and Manning joined Puig and Galuten for a four-man production committee), the disc is sophisticated enough to engender Queen comparisons. Cushioned by creamy harmonies, “New Mistake” brilliantly swirls and soars like aural tiramisu. “Joining a Fan Club” and “The Ghost at Number One” have as much spinning melodic punch as any Raspberries or Cheap Trick gem; the crisply edited “All Is Forgiven” is built around a thunderous rhythm track, while “Russian Hill” spins a more pensive, acoustic web. In a frustrating development, just as Jellyfish hit its lush apex, a simmering rift between Sturmer and Manning led to the group’s dissolution late in ’93.
While Manning went off on the delightful cover-band goof of the Moog Cookbook after Jellyfish, Bellybutton guitarist Jason Falkner first hooked up with Spilt Milk session guitarist Jon Brion (who’d toured with ‘Til Tuesday, and co-produced Aimee Mann’s Whatever album in ’93), singer Buddy Judge and ex- Lloyd Cole drummer Dan McCarroll to form the Grays. Falkner’s “Very Best Years,” which opens this decent debut disc, sounds exactly like his old band; adding to the sense of déjà entendu, Puig produced. Although three songwriters ensure a certain degree of variety (“Not Long for This World” rocks like a punchier Church; “Friend of Mine” lopes with the haze of early Neil Young), the album is still bland, and Ro Sham Bo simply doesn’t scale the heights of either Jellyfish record.
Falkner released his first solo album, Author Unknown, in 1996.