Counterbalance: Morphine – Cure for Pain

Where is the ritual? And tell me where, where is the taste? Someday there'll be the 2022 most acclaimed album of all time. That's the day I throw my drugs away. An underrated 1990s masterpiece is this week's Counterbalance.
Cure for Pain

Mendelsohn: Over the past couple of years, we have had some in-depth conversations about music from the 1990s. It usually goes something like this; Me: “Hey, Klinger, remember this band?” You: “I hate the 1990s.” If you throw that little dialogue into a Boggle shaker you could possibly come up with my opinion about most bands from the 1960s. And yet, knowing what we know about each other, we still persist in testing the other’s limits. This week, I dug a little deeper, found something a little different. A power trio from the 1990s made up of a bassist, a saxophonist and a drummer — if you guessed Morphine and their 1993 record Cure for Pain, you would be right.

Klinger: Well, the joke’s on you this week, Mendelsohn, because I absolutely love this record. Granted, I hadn’t heard it in nearly 20 years, but I can assure it was a staple at many of the parties, after-parties and oh-my-god-it’s-daylight-and-this-is-still-happening-parties of my youth. In fact, if I’m remembering correctly (and I can assure you I am not), this album was frequently playing in the background at things. So I didn’t really realize how much I loved this record until I spent a concentrated amount of time with it these past couple weeks. Holy crap do I love this record. I’m sorry to interrupt, though — you were saying?

Mendelsohn: I was saying that Morphine, quiet possibly the antithesis of the guitar/bass/drums triumvirate that drives conventional rock and roll, met with moderate success on the indie circuit and college radio before the death of singer/bass guitarist Mark Sandman in 1999. I’m using the term bass guitar as loosely as possible since Sandman was know to construct him own instruments, most notably a two-string slide bass guitar that provides the underpinning of this record behind Dana Colley’s sublime sax work and the drums of Jerome Deupree.

Out of all of the perceived injustices of the Great List, and there are many, I always felt Morphine should have garnered more respect. Cure for Pain is the band’s only record on the Great List, sitting at no. 2202. I realize we are talking about a 20-year-old indie rock record by a band that barely made it out of the regional East Coast tour circuit, and maybe I’m just unable to see this record’s weaknesses from years of internalization but it just seems a little out of character. What’s not to like? All the sax? The low end? The tawdry tales of sex and pain? The homemade instruments? This record has cult classic written all over it and by all accounts should be pushing its way up the Great List, not in danger of falling out of critical memory.

Klinger: To be honest, I’m also surprised that Morphine isn’t higher on the list. But as we learned when we were discussing the dB’s, these things do happen. So maybe a few people like us, standing athwart history yelling stop, is the best we can offer. I’m going to fly the flag for this album for all the reasons you mentioned, and I’ll throw in the fact that there are moments on Cure For Pain that are filled with an all-too-rare, unflinching honesty. Anyone out there who struggles with depression and anxiety (or wants to understand it a little better) should listen closely to “I’m Free Now.” I can’t help comparing this song, with all of Mark Sandman’s thrashing up against his own brain, with the Nine Inch Nails album we covered a while back. Those songs are melodrama; “I’m Free Now” is journalism.

Musically, I’m struck by how there’s a cohesiveness of sound without the songs sounding especially samey. Of course, that massive low end (baritone sax! I played baritone sax in high school, by the way) creates an almost film-noir feel throughout the album, but then there’s still room for an off-the-wall rocker like “Buena” or an aching, Leonard Cohenesque track like “In Spite of Me” (on which a sweet mandolin lightens the proceedings just enough to somehow make it all even sadder). You might think that a limited palette would hem the group in, but that’s clearly not the case.

Mendelsohn: Morphine does an excellent job of executing so much with so very little. Only two strings on the bass? No problem. Just a baritone sax? Yes, please. And as great as it is to hear Sandman and Colley play off each other as they explore some avant garde jazz ideas, it is always Deupree’s drumming trying it all together. That, I think, is the definition of the power trio, whether Morphine are blasting through a rocker like “Thursday”, or the balladry of “I’m Free”, or jazz intro and outros that bookend the album, they never falter and provide enough variance to keep the listener hooked with an easy ebb and flow.

If there is anything that held Morphine back, it might have been the jazz influence. In this setting, it works so well — just enough jazz to push the record away from the mainstream, but not enough to make it inaccessible. I can’t get enough of the Colley’s squawking on “Buena” and “Mary Won’t You Call My Name”. But maybe it is the jazz influence that lends toCure for Pain’s perceived stature and it’s actual ranking on the Great List. And as you noted, this record lends itself to the background, which is a shame because you miss the beautiful moments in this record, be it the unflinching honesty and dark humor of Sandman’s lyrics, the understated production work of Paul Kolderie (who has an incredible resume) or the intricate interplay between Sandman, Colley and Deupree who seem to all be playing at different speeds.

Klinger: I’m not hearing as much jazz as you are, saxophones aside, but I can see where you’re coming from — especially when you think of Cure for Pain as music that rewards you no matter how you engage with it. It can sit neatly in the background, lending a sultry, sensual atmosphere to even the most mundane of tasks. Up loud, though (and believe me, I have had this record cranked these last few days), it’s easy to get lost in the album’s massive caverns of sound, which seem to just keep unveiling endless worlds — worlds of pool halls, cheap motels and grubby little bars with black walls, but endless worlds just the same.

I guess I’m not all that surprised at the sophistication that’s at work here — Sandman was a wily veteran even at this stage, having already made something of a mark with his previous band Treat Her Right. I remember their song “I Think She Likes Me” getting some airplay back in the late 1980s, during the approximately two weeks that AOR radio was attempting to smarten up a little bit. That group, with its blues-based sound and reliance on low-end groovery, laid the groundwork for the further sonic explorations that were to come from Morphine. And Sandman was already past 40 when Cure for Pain came out, so he was no dilettante, and clearly someone who was steeped in a breadth of music history.

Mendelsohn: Sandman was also famously private about his age, fearing that he might be seen as an interloper in what is normally thought of as a game for the young. And while rock and roll certainly does well with youthful exuberance, great music knows no age limit. I think that’s why I’m still so perplexed by Morphine’s ranking on the Great List. This band, by all rights, should be a critical darling, having almost all of the hallmarks that push bands from being merely good to being great. With Morphine we have a group of talented musicians, exploring the boundaries of conventional rock music in an era of alternative music that embraced the reconstruction of rock and roll. Sandman had paid his dues in a number of underground bands before finding some success with Treat Her Right and even more with Morphine. But it was Sandman’s drive and passion for music ultimately led to his untimely death in 1999 as he suffered a heart attack on stage during a show in Italy.

Summarizing it like that, the history of Morphine reads like bad pulp fiction, a stylized account of an outsider musician, pursuing his own vision but unable to grasp the gold ring that always seemed within his reach. But there it is, hopefully we aren’t the only ones out there who find Morphine’s Cure for Pain to be an incredible listening experience and maybe one day it will climb the ranks of the Great List to a spot befitting of its unclaimed stature.