I have to think that most our readers are familiar with the concept of “Desert Island Discs.” The premise is to make a list of albums (usually 10) that one would take if stranded on a desert island, forsaking all others (assuming, of course, that there was a sustainable means of playback for said albums).
For me, and many others, it is a daunting task – paring one’s collection to the 10 core works of musical art that could, hopefully, sustain one over the remaining years. I would prefer to be given the option of creating 10 album-length compilations, therefore providing a much wider range of performances, but that’s cheating.
What if, instead of 10 discs, you could only take one? Are there any albums in your collection that could hold up over innumerable repeat plays, one that would provide lasting satisfaction the rest of your life? I’ve thought about it, and I think I have two or three that, for my musical tastes, would qualify. I surprised myself, in that, despite the fact that progressive rock is my favorite genre, my selections do not include any in that style, nor are the candidates any of the influential albums from my youth. In this article I will focus on just one of those choices. (It’s the old Hollywood tactic of leaving room for sequels.)
I think that, to hold up under such challenging conditions, an album would have to incorporate the following elements: 1) a reasonably wide variety of moods and styles, 2) arrangements that are complex and interesting, and 3) high-quality engineering and production sufficient to satisfy my audiophile idiosyncrasies. A lot of records would qualify if two out of three were enough, but all three?
One record that checks all the boxes for me is Bellybutton, by the group Jellyfish. I don’t expect that many of you are familiar with it, but I think it is one of the most impressive debut rock albums ever made. Jellyfish was a San Francisco-area quartet that put out just two albums. They sported a decidedly retro-psychedelic look on the Bellybutton album cover and in their videos. For a relatively obscure (and defunct) band, they have a seriously loyal fan base. On one YouTube entry, called “The Greatest Band That Never Made It,” the comments section amply demonstrates the high regard in which the band is held by those who have heard them.
Bellybutton was produced by Albhy Galuten (Grammy-winning producer of the Bee Gees, Eric Clapton, Barbra Streisand, and many others) and engineered/co-produced by Jack Joseph Puig (Toto, Randy Newman, Eric Clapton, etc.). That’s a pair of industry heavyweights of the caliber you don’t often see working on a relatively unknown band’s first record, but the results speak for themselves. The sonics are exceptionally clean, complementing the songwriting, instrumental work, and arrangements to make a compelling package.
On this album, the band is comprised of Andy Sturmer (vocals, drums, some guitar and keyboards), Roger Manning (keyboards and vocals), Jason Falkner (guitars, basses, backing vocals), and Chris Manning (credited as “band witch doctor and mime”). Guest musicians included John Pattitucci on upright bass and Lenny Castro and Luis Conte on percussion. The songs were written by Sturmer and Roger Manning, with the exception of two that were composed by Sturmer alone.
There is a level of sophistication way beyond what you find on most first albums. The vocal harmonies are stunningly polished, and there are no tracks that I would want to skip. Someone once told me that they practiced their harmonies for hours on end, day in and day out, and it shows. Check out the official (lip-synced) video for one of my favorite tracks, “That Is Why.”
And listen to the singing on “The King Is Half-Undressed.”
Andy Sturmer plays a fairly basic set of drums standing up while he sings, but the drumming is certainly not basic. When the band played live, they did a remarkable job of re-creating the sound they got in the studio, as evidenced by this excerpt from a German broadcast. Go to 1:01:20, where they show their Beatles influence using Paul McCartney and Wings’ “Let ‘em In” as an intro to “That Is Why.”
If I have one quibble with the album, it’s the sequencing. The choice of “The Man I Used to Be” as the leadoff track is not what I would have picked. It’s a fine cut, but it’s not as representative of the band’s style compared to a lot of the other songs.
I also would have chosen “Baby’s Coming Back” over “Calling Sarah” to close out the set. Despite the conflicted lyrics, “Baby’s Coming Back” is such a happy-sounding track that it makes me want to start the record all over again.
Another track that shows the band’s range is “Bedspring Kiss,” with a mood more reminiscent of a jazzy lounge act.
“All I Want Is Everything” is an up-tempo number with a nod to one of their biggest influences. When Andy sings, “I think I’d like to play guitar and be a Beatle, that’d be so swell,” check out the backing vocals on that last word (00:56).
Speaking of the Beatles, when I had my CD/record store, Andy Sturmer came in and I told him how much I liked their first album, preferring it to their second one, Spilt Milk. He said something to the effect that “there’s no accounting for taste. We think of our first album as fast food, where the second is a banquet.” What I didn’t say (but I was thinking it) was that on their first album, it seemed like they wanted to be the Beatles, and they nailed it; but on the second one, they wanted to be Queen, and I don’t really care for Queen.
In fact, I’ll probably raise some eyebrows here, but I think that if the Beatles had lasted longer, they might have done something very much like Bellybutton. I’ve made my case – readers (and fellow writers) are encouraged to come up with their own choice for a desert island disc.
Header image courtesy of Pexels.com/RIccardo.