Or: Now He Knows He’s Wrong.
I’ve always had a bit of a weird relationship with this album. The band’s follow-up and swan song, 1993’s Spilt Milk, has always been one of the great flawed masterpieces of the ‘90s in my book, but I’ve always sort of cast this debut aside as fairly mediocre. I know it’s got a rabid cult of followers who think it’s some kind of high holy grail for power pop, but I’ve always just sort of passed it over as being a bit too wimpy, a smidge too self-consciously cute.
It’s funny; for all that I’m a Cheap Trick obsessive, I’ve never been much of a power-pop fan in general. Sure, I dig the really great stuff – Big Star, Posies, the always undervalued Supergrass, even Spilt Milk for that matter – but most alleged power-pop simply has too much vapid pop and not enough raw power for my tastes. I know some people live and die by the pretty harmonies, but I’m only a fan of them when they’re icing on the cake of a well-written song, rather than a shiny decoy to distract from weak songwriting.
For several years, I dismissed Jellyfish in general as exactly that: a big, shiny, well-buffed box of nothing. This had everything to do with the main single and video from this album, “Baby’s Coming Back”, which I still don’t care for at all. I do try to look past image in rock ‘n’ roll as much as I can, but sometimes in life you’ve just got to recognize and acknowledge patterns. For me, bands full of hippies wearing silly hats rarely generate music that I’m going to like at all. Unfair? A bit, I’m sure, but a correct assumption at least ninety-five percent of the time. By my standards, the video for “Baby’s Coming Back” was an absolute nightmare. The song itself wasn’t much better, sounding like something akin to Paul McCartney’s most vacuous Wings material slightly goosed up on poor quality, heavily diluted truck-stop speed. Friend after friend told me I was wrong, that the Cheap Trick fan in me needed to hear this album, but no dice: video and single were such stinkers that I simply didn’t care to know more.
Flash forward two years: I’m watching 120 Minutes on MTV late one Sunday night, and walk in halfway on a video for something that does actually sound kinda like Cheap Trick. I recoiled in horror when the band/title card came up at clip’s end: oh god, not that dopey band with the stupid hats. A week or two later, I found a cheap copy somewhere in Greenwich Village, took the plunge, and was wowed. Sufficiently wowed, that is, to swallow my pride and backtrack to the first album…which I still didn’t like. Three good songs, nothing more, kept in the collection for reference, life goes on.
This morning was probably the first time I’ve spun Bellybutton front to back in about a decade or so, and to say I was pleasantly surprised by its quality would be a serious understatement. Maybe I just needed enough time to forget how silly they looked in their videos, who knows, but eight of the album’s ten songs qualify as first-rate quirk-pop. Calling this stuff power-pop really does it a bit of a disservice, I think; honestly, Jellyfish don’t really do power. Likewise, the eternal Cheap Trick comparison is largely inaccurate: while the Trick were undoubtedly an influence on these guys, the heavier end of Cheap Trick’s sound, the end that shared some aesthetic values with punk rock, is completely missing from the stew concocted by main Jellyfishers Andy Sturmer and Roger Manning. This band really had its own vibe and sound, which explains both their relative commercial failure in their time and the continuing interest that keeps their music in print and alive years after their dissolution. Seriously: how many bands who only left behind two LPs eventually become the subject of a four CD boxed set?
Let’s get the trouble spots out of the way first: I still dislike “Baby’s Coming Back” for the exact same reason I’ve never felt even the smallest compulsion to download a solo Paul McCartney album for free, let alone buy one. Leave the saccharine in my diet soda, thanks. “Bedspring Kiss” is a lengthy-feeling art-drone that never really reaches any kind of release; I get where they were going with it, but the execution is fumbled a bit too far into boring territory. Happily, the band was considerate enough to group the two clunkers together near the end of the record. Just don’t turn it off after track seven, though, or you’ll miss closer “Calling Sarah”, one of the album’s easy highlights.
Most of Bellybutton is comprised of bright, bouncy pop that diverts attention away from some fairly dark lyrical themes; it’s a style that’s a cliché when it’s done without panache and a wonder when it’s pulled off well, as this band does. Still, the album’s most poignant moment for me is the one that’s not like all the rest: “I Wanna Stay Home” slows the pace appropriately for an ode to melancholy that’s somehow, against all odds and logic, oddly uplifting in its despair. Even back when I still thought little of the album as a whole, this particular cut more often than not made the “slow song” slot on one side of my mix tapes.
When it comes to non-mainstream music, cults can be a pain in the ass. Listen to a cult artist’s aficionados talk long enough, and the music will never live up to the hype once you’ve heard it. I still don’t quite buy that Bellybutton is the greatest power-pop album of all time. Sorry, cultists, but that’s In Color – or, fine, maybe Radio City. Either way, deal with it and move on. But ‘90s alternative (in the true sense of that word) pop doesn’t get much finer than Bellybutton, at least not until its follow-up.
Whatever you do, just don’t make the same mistake that I did and watch the video for “Baby’s Coming Back” before hearing the rest of the album, and end up depriving yourself of what it's really got to offer for years before coming around. Try this one for “The King is Half Undressed” instead; sure, there’s still plenty of dumb hats and silly clothes to go around, but at least the song is great.