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It was a lovely Jellyfish world, truly it was. Such a shame if you missed it. Of course, now it has gone the way of all things that glitter too fantastically and fizzle far too soon. About seven years ago, the San Francisco four-piece, comprised of nefarious drummer/lead singer Andy Sturmer, teen-dream keyboardist Roger Manning, psychedelic bassist and Manning brother, Chris, and modish, melodic guitarist Jason Falkner, created an expansive and enchanting otherworld, a storybook place seemingly scripted by Roald Dahl, illustrated by Dr. Seuss, and scored by John and Paul at their most farcical.
Most critics would probably disagree, but then they’re a crabby bunch, handicapped by the rotting, jaded ears of grown-ups for whom little is novel and even less a marvel. Even those who greeted Jellyfish’s 1990 debut, Bellybutton, with positive reviews certainly didn’t hear the album with a child’s heart; they simply relished the opportunity to flaunt their arcane music-critic skills, as they revealed stolen riffs, borrowed melody lines, and the ever-annoying “obvious influences.”
With Jellyfish there was a thick line between love and hate. Enemies were tripped up by the platform boots, irked by the funny hats, and downright incensed by the bubbles, daisies, and candy chains. Granted, the aesthetic message was convolutedimagine the Partridge Family crashing the Madhatter’s tea party, now hosted by the Cat in the Hatbut then so are the jumbled, toybox memories of childhood. As for their opinion of the music, my, did the pop pundits shriek, not only about the plundering from bands of yore, but the massive production and the blatantly Anglophilic bent.
But for the believersusually Beatles children born too late, kaleidoscope-eyed kiddies who studied their mums’ album jackets with the same intensity as their Mother Goose primers, who had no clue what it really meant to roll up for a magical mystery tour but longed to just the samefor those people Jellyfish ignited the wonderment of childhood. It fulfilled a pop band’s most elusive, most noble purpose: creating music that makes you swoon and revel in an innocence long since lost.
But like the bestand not coincidentally, mostly Britishchildren’s literature, a dark streak ran parallel to the innocence. Sadly, we can’t frolic forever in the Chocolate Room; eventually, we must move forward, board the Wonkatania and take the ominous trip into the tunnel. The first indication that the green apple was rotting came when Falkner, who, as well as having played nearly all the bass and guitar, also sang backup and helped with some arrangements on the debut, walked away from the band before the second record. Concurrently, Roger’s brother was told he wouldn’t play on Opus 2.
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Despite a rotting core, the band released a tremendous secondand finalalbum, Spilt Milk. (Unfortunately, it was dropped into a market freshly dictated by the feedback and fuzz of Nirvana, not one conducive to an aspiring Pet Sounds or Sgt. Pepper’s.) Enter the quiet Beatle, Tim Smith, who played bass on the record, and Eric Dover, a Southern boy with a crooked smile, Grinchy green eyes, and an affinity for trucker tunes. Both were truly Jellyfishy in mind and spirit, and could play their bums off to boot.
Still, as they toured, the Mad Hatter got eviler and eviler and things got rottener and rottener. And so the inevitable “creative differences” dissolved the promising Sturmer/Manning songwriting partnership and led to the inevitable breakup.
To fanatics who pride themselves on knowing the inner dealings of their fave bands, the news was as devastating as having been exposed to Disney’s versions of fairy tales and then being handed the originals, only to find that the Little Mermaid really dies and that the Wicked Queen devours the heart she believes to have been Snow White’s. Certainly Spilt Milk didn’t do as well as the debut, which sold moderately well and spawned MTV buzz clips, but a band of such complexity and imagination doesn’t just, just…end, does it?
Luckily for the devoted, and you, too, if you’re a pop fan who’s never heard them, former Jellyfishers have released albums this year. Both albums are undeniable products of once like-minded companions; but better still, they are opulent pop manifestoes of independent vision.
Where is fancy bread? In the heart or in the head?Wonka
“This isn’t a discotheque, dahling, this is the theater of the stars,” snips a foppish male voice raising the curtain on Imperial Drag’s debut.
Seductively, we’re invited into a world of flashing lights, go-go dancers, and sexual ambiguity. It seems the little Jellyfish boysDover and R. Manning, to be specifichave hit puberty, given the old boss the finger, and need to ROCK. Of course, as is the way of the Manning, they must rock with a capital F, as in fabulous, with layers upon layers of minutiae: Moogs, harmonies, gongs, handclaps, whispers, and howls.
“Aaaack!” the spoilsports wail. “Retro! T-Rex! Glam!”
“I’m unoriginal, it’s fine,” Dover answers presciently on the opener, and adds mockingly, “I wanna know about your zodiac sign.” Yes, the Imperial Draggers are androgynous, glamorous, and even cock-rocking at times, but always utterly devoted and fatally ironic. Unlike other advocates of fab, they are neither fey and hollow (Nancy Boy) or shallow and pointless (Menswear). The swath they cut is far wider, far madder, and all over the place. If anything, Imperial Drag is guilty of being abstract in the vein of Blur or Pulp. The big difference, besides his being American, is that lead singer Dover possesses a voice manly enough to have fronted Slash’s Snakepit. Lacking the British warble that excuses, and even encourages, musical and conceptual excess and folly, Dover will be thrown into the retro dungeons, while Chris Cornell, who plays and sings it quite straight, walks a free man.
Are the songs as hollow as the decade they are accused of celebrating? No, thanks in large part to Dover’s songwriting, which provides the highlights on the album: the striptease-inducing “Salvation Army Band,” the sexy, teasing “Boy or a Girl,” and the groovy “Spyder.” The acoustic, country-blues-meets-French-torch-song “Dandelion,” though, does suggest that he is capable of telling truths that don’t hide behind trippy allegories.
As for the substantial contribution of Jellyfish originator Manning, his production is characteristic of his work on the Jellyfish records: meticulous and dense, and cerebral almost to a fault. Now that Manning has let his hair down musically, it might just do him some good to tousle it a bit and give the songs a chance to breathe as freely as they do when performed live. Normally indifferent to lyrics (Sturmer wrote the majority in Jellyfish), Manning actually does let loose enough to pen “Scaredy Cats and Egomaniacs,” a veiled but stinging attack directed toward a certain someone: “Superstar you’ve really done it now, can’t you tell?/And you have brewed a tempest in a teacup/It was born…To give you hell.” If in fact Sturmer did inspire some of the fury on this album, he did us all a service.
And if his tempestuous relationship with his original guitarist influenced Falkner to strike out on his own, well, he did yet another good deed. As it turns out, Jason Falkner is the Charlie Puckett of his old group, the fair-haired boy with a worthy heart: Instead of turning over the everlasting gobstopper to Slugworth for a quick buck, he has listened to his conscience and returned it to Wonka. In doing so he hits the jackpot, winning not only the lifetime supply of chocolate, but the whole factorya solo deal on Elektra, total control over his first solo project, Jason Falkner Presents Author Unknown (on which he writes every song and plays every instrument), and a double, gatefold single on Sub Pop.
On Author Unknown, Falkner’s Jellyfish lineage is evident in his overwhelming melodicism and harmonic sense, as well as in the host of deliberate details he has planted for headphone listeners. Whereas Jellyfish rarely dug deeper than the pun-ny, fictional story-song, Falkner has crafted songs that are heartening in a way that transcends the work of his peers.
Falkner’s songs bleed like someone whose heart has gotten crushed by the heel of a platform boot, but whose spirit hid under the arch. The glaring error of Jellyfish, and Imperial Drag for that matter, is the lack of that timeless song you run to when your heart hurts and your head aches, a song that clears the skies and warms the cockles. Falkner’s “She Goes to Bed” or “Don’t Show Me Heaven” have momentsthe combination of a lyric and a minor key change or the culmination of subtly mounting dynamicsthat soothe, swell, and sigh. Mind you, the boy is still plenty ironic and plenty silly (as in the acoustic “Before My Heart Attacks” or the rompy, poppy “I Go Astray”). But where he surpasses most pop writers is his almost supernatural ability to arrange and score a song that improves your frame of mind.
Of course, he’s not without ire. A punk-rock kid at heart, Falkner scores direct, unwavering, and sometimes scathing blows. “Afraid Himself to Be,” for example, could be interpreted as being about the same ex-bandmate Manning assails: “One thing I know is true/What once was me everyone now believes is you/Originality was never big on your list of things to be/A closer look only to find, you’re standing without reason or rhyme/And when the lights go up they’ll see a man who’s afraid of himself, afraid of himself/Afraid himself to be.” Sounds like someone we know.
You should never doubt what no one’s sure about.Wonka
The final puzzle piece, then, is in the possession of Sturmer. Manning and Dover have put together a band as formidable as Jellyfish ever was. Smith released an album with his band the Umajets (on which Dover and Manning played) and is currently playing bass with Sheryl Crow. Falkner’s walkout proved to be a brilliant move, affirmed by his grand musical statement on Author Unknown. Only an album from Sturmer will illuminate the creepy, nethermost reaches of the Jellyfish mystique. Is Sturmer the deranged Wonka, the callous genius who watches his little fans get swallowed up in his factory? Or is he Wonka the hobbling trickster, the gifted perfectionist turned sour after too many disappointments from rotten parents and spoiled children? We may never know, but then, with such outstanding records from Imperial Drag and Jason Falkner, we just might stop caring.CP
Jason Falkner opens for Suzanne Vega at the 9:30 Club Oct. 25.