Clearing the Decks: Shoes and Jellyfish Reviews

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by John M. Borack

As I feverishly work on a new column with a slew of reviews, here are a few older ones that for some reason never saw the light of day: write-ups of a few cool power pop reissues from 2015.

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Bellybutton
Spilt Milk

Omnivore Recordings

Jellyfish’s two full-length platters – 1990’s Bellybutton and 1993’s Spilt Milk – served as major sonic signposts for the short-lived power pop revival of the ‘90s, and as such have been revered by fans of inventive, melodic music ever since. Omnivore Recordings has remastered both records and added a staggering 51 bonus cuts over the course of these two double-disc reissues, along with track-by-track annotation by band members Andy Sturmer and Roger Joseph Manning, Jr. and two fine essays by author Ken Sharp as part of the accompanying booklets.

Jellyfish stood apart from their pop brethren by incorporating a wide variety of sounds and styles into their musical bag of tricks; rather than simply aping the sounds of the British Invasion, listeners of these two records were more likely to suss out influences such as the Beach Boys, Queen, Electric Light Orchestra and Burt Bacharach. The results were always interesting at the very least, and quite often breathtaking and innovative. Bellybutton is a stunning debut, fortified by straightforward, punchy rockers such as “The King is Half Undressed” and “All I Want is Everything,” the mellow, intoxicating “I Wanna Stay Home” and the near-hit “Baby’s Coming Back,” which reached number 62 on the Billboard charts.

The bonus tracks include a bevy of live performances and demos (most culled from the massive 2002 box set Fan Club, issued on Not Lame Recordings). The pick of the litter here is a roaring live version of the wonderful, otherwise-unreleased “Mr. Late,” along with covers of the Archies (“Sugar and Spice”) and Paul McCartney and Wings (“Jet”). The in concert recordings prove that the band was a formidable live act, and disc two’s menu of 16 demos include a Donovan cover and a handful of songs that didn’t make the original Bellybutton lineup.

The more expansive, florid Spilt Milk saw Jellyfish take a great leap forward in songwriting, arranging and sonic sheen. As Andy Sturmer opines in the booklet, “Bellybutton was a nice salad, an appetizer, but Spilt Milk was a 10-course meal with dessert and coffee.” Some of the treats to be found here are the sweet Harry Nilsson tribute “He’s My Best Friend,” the muscular, off-the-charts amazing “The Ghost at Number One” (Andy Sturmer’s best-ever lead vocal) and the fanciful, everything-but-the-kitchen sink “Brighter Day.”

The demos are all over the map, ranging from “Family Tree” (the best song Foreigner never wrote, no joke) and the cartoonish “Ignorance is Bliss” to the swingin’ “I Don’t Believe You,” which is not unlike a harmony-filled Hollies jewel. Jellyfish fans – and lovers of innovative pop in general – will want to add both these reissues to their collection, not only for the revelatory remastering job given to the material, but also for the expanded artwork and the previously mentioned essays. This is the way reissues should be done, folks. Grade: A   www.omnivorerecordings.com

Primal-Vinyl       SHOES
Primal Vinyl
Alive Natural Sound (LP only)

A limited-edition 2015 Record Store Day exclusive of only 800 copies (on starburst vinyl, yet), Shoes’ Primal Vinyl is something of a best-of and rarities collection rolled into one. Some of the pioneering power pop band’s most well-known tracks are here (“Tomorrow Night” and “Too Late” from their 1979 Elektra Records LP, “Okay” from their pioneering, DIY Black Vinyl Shoes album, and the sleek “Love is Like a Bullet” from 1989’s Stolen Wishes), alongside three demos from 1980’s Tongue Twister, making their first appearance on vinyl. (These were previously available on CD only, as part of 2007’s hard to find Double Exposure collection.) There’s also one brand new track, a live run through of the riff-heavy rocker “I Don’t Wanna Hear It,” recorded in 2013.

Hearing these classic power pop tunes on vinyl is often something of a revelation; the acoustic guitars on numbers such as “The Summer Rain” and “Love is Like a Bullet” sound wonderfully bright, while other previously buried aspects of certain songs are brought to the surface (the percussion on the driving “Boys Don’t Lie” and the acoustic guitars on “Okay,” for example). And while the starburst vinyl might not be the most attractive we’ve ever seen—it’s sort of a brownish/greenish/orangey mix—it’s still cooler looking than the standard black. Primal Vinyl isn’t the place to go for a comprehensive Shoes collection (2012’s 35 Years – The Definitive Shoes Collection does a good job in that regard), but it’s a treat for Shoes completists and novices alike. Grade: A-     www.alive-records.com

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