Few bands have ever managed to create so much out of so little, with a formula so deceptively simple. Three guys, with three instruments: drums, baritone saxophone, and a two-string slide bass. Yet this Boston trio, who dubbed themselves Morphine, managed to create a sound all their own over the 10 years they were together, fusing rock, jazz, and soul like no other band before or since. Led by singer/bassist Mark Sandman (a perfect name, considering the sleepy baritone of his voice), Morphine played what he called “low-rock”, a sometimes brooding, sometimes propulsive, guttural, yet highly melodic music, and over the course of five studio albums, their music, surprisingly, never seemed to get stale. Hearing Colley’s fierce sax licks, Conway’s jazz-inspired drumming, Sandman’s sinewy, slinky, and highly melodic slide bass lines, and above all, that smoky voice of his spouting hipster poetry, the band proved to be as addictive as their namesake.
Sandman’s sudden death onstage in Italy in July 1999 marked the end of Morphine, devastating fans, but thanks to sax player Dana Colley and drummer Billy Conway, the band’s legacy won’t be soon forgotten. In the year following Sandman’s passing, we saw the release the band’s final, and vastly underrated, studio album, The Night, as well as the excellent, and typically lo-fi Bootleg Detroit live album; now in 2003, we have The Best of Morphine 1992-1995, a mighty fine collection of the bands finest moments on their first three albums for Rykodisc (their last two were recorded for Dreamworks). As much as fans loved Morphine back in the ‘90s, their albums, aside from 1993’s stellar Cure For Pain, sometimes sounded a bit spotty, but they were never short of great moments, so a best-of compilation really works well in Morphine’s case, giving us a solid hour’s worth of great music.
Morphine’s 1990 debut album Good is represented by three tracks. “You Speak My Language” is driven by a tribal tom-tom beat from Conway, and psychedelic sax overdubs, as Sandman goes to blurt away in what sounds like his own form of Esperanto, singing, “Kabrula kaysay brula amal amala senda kumahn brendhaa.” “Have a Lucky Day” has more of the intense, brooding quality that characterized Morphine’s distinctive sound, as Sandman muses how the lovesick are always as pathetic as compulsive gamblers: “I can’t lose forever but I’m doomed to try.” Sandman’s Beat Generation-inspired lyrics often prove to be much deeper than, say, the barfly prattling of early Tom Waits, as proven on the image-rich “You Look Like Rain”, where, over a slinky beat, subtle sax accents, and a simple, droning organ riff, Sandman drones, “You think like a whip on a horse’s back / Stretched out to the limit you make it crack.”
The 1995 album Yes and the out-takes compilation B-Sides and Other wise are also given polite nods. Yes is one of the weakest Morphine albums (along with 1997’s Like Swimming, but oddly, it has four of the band’s finest songs. “Honey White”, with its wicked, screaming saxophone intro is old-school rock and roll, as is the menacing “Radar”. The smoky jazz of “Whisper” is one of Sandman’s most sultry songs (“There’s nothing more I’d like to do/Then come in close and hear you laugh”), while the brilliant “Super Sex” is just plain raunchy, as Colley plays “double sax” (tenor and baritone saxes played simultaneously) and Sandman spouts some great stream-of-consciousness lines: “Automatic taxi stop / Electric cigarette love baby / Hotel rock ‘n’ roll the discoteque / Electric super sex.” The lone selection from B-Sides and Otherwise, the thundering “Shame” manages to hold its own among the album tracks (a video clip of a live performance of this song is included as a CD-ROM bonus).
It’s Morphine’s 1993 album Cure For Pain, though, that most fans love the most, and it’s evident the surviving band members feel the same way, since five of that album’s songs are included. Their signature tune, “Buena”, is a no-brainer choice, as the band perfectly executes the bass-sax-drums formula, while the deceptively gorgeous “Cure For Pain” actually delves into R&B, possessing a real pop hook in its melody, as well as some Motown-style sax playing by Colley. “I’m Free Now” shows a more sensitive side to the usually cool Sandman (“I got guilt I got fear I got regret / I’m just a panic stricken waste I’m such a jerk”). The unsettling ballad “Candy” sounds about as comfortable as laying down in quicksand, while the darkly humorous “Thursday” weaves a tongue-in-cheek tale, while sounding about as low as lo-fi can get.
Rounding out the compilation are three previously unreleased tracks, including the eight-minute, recorded-on-the-fly a tale of two lovelorn kids of “Jack and Tina”, the ethereal “Pretty Face”, and the gorgeous, supercool jazz tune “Sexy Christmas Baby Mine”. Although there’s more than enough room for some other memorable Morphine songs like “Sheila” and “Head With Wings”, and despite the fact that the band’s two Dreamworks albums weren’t included in the compilation, Colley and Conway have done an admirable job in assembling an album that has appeal to both new listeners and longtime fans. To paraphrase the much-missed Sandman, it’s all good, good, good.
// Notes from the Road
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