learning well from pop's past

Spilt Milk (Virgin)

By Allen Howie

Bellybutton, the striking debut by Jellyfish, won rave reviews, but set a pretty high standard for the group. Fortunately for us, their sophomore effort is equal to the challenge. Stripped down to a duo (Andy Sturmer on drums, Roger Manning on keyboards, and both on guitars and vocals), the band has assembled a wonderfully catchy collection of pop tunes that mines the late-Sixties/ early-Seventies pop catalog and finds plenty of gold among the dross.

The album commences with "Hush," whose ethereal harmonies make this sound like Queen singing a lullaby. The Queen buzz lingers awhile, but cranked up several notches, in the crunchy pop of "Joining a Fan Club." Then comes a spin on the giddy Beatles merry-go-round of "Sebrina, Paste and Plato," a child's eye view of elementary school, which gives way to the edgy "New Mistake," with a bridge beautifully suspended from arching guitar lines and a vocal approach that recalls the best of Ambrosia.

The trip through pop's wax museum continues with the sweetly melodic Crowded House echoes of "Glutton of Sympathy." But all these influences converge in the sonic blast of "Ghost of Number One," which takes a dim view of pop stardom and features a bridge that could easily have been lifted from the Beach Boys Pet Sounds sessions.

What makes all this work is that Jellyfish isn't simply rehashing all these sounds to exploit them. Instead, they've used them as building blocks for their own eclectic sound, providing a broad palette for their considerable songwriting gifts. This approach lends wings to the ridiculously catchy Fab farce of "Bye Bye Bye," and drives the reluctant absolution of "All Is Forgiven." it's why the acoustic loveliness of "Russian Hill" sounds perfectly natural alongside the pulsing bubblegum of "He's My Best Friend," and allows the Jamaican Badfinger buzz of "Too Much Too Little Too Late" to coexist quite peacefully with the album's closer, the optimistic "Brighter Day."

Spilt Milk is far more than the sum of its parts, a colorful collection of treats that should take the edge off anyone's sweet tooth.