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Mark Sandman: Sandbox: The Music of Mark Sandman

Seth Limmer

My name is Mark Sandman. Music for us is the most important thing. The songs are written about women, how to gain her, how to lose her, and the danger of being human. Each song has its own life, and we try to play each song as it exists by itself.

Mark Sandman

Sandbox: the Music of Mark Sandman

Label: High-N-Dry
US Release Date: 2004-11-16
UK Release Date: 2005-02-21

"Me llamo Mark Sandman. Musica para nosotros es la cosa mas importante... el dinero no importe nada... importe muy poco, un poco.... Los canciones son escritos sobre la mujer y para perder, para ganar, y el peligrosodel ser humano. Cada cancion tiene su propria vida, y nos tratamos tocar cada cancion como existe solo. Entiende?"

It was not always easy to understand Mark Sandman. Understated to the point of muted, laconic way past the borders of ironic, the frontman for Morphine and Treat Her Right constantly defied easy comprehension, demanding from his audience a more focused, more participatory involvement in his music. "I leave room to think about things that aren't said in words" is the way Sandman described his own brand of lyricism that not only left room for, but demanded interpretation. Classic Morphine songs like "Empty Box" and "The Jury", over a decade after their initial release, still swim openly in endless seas of meaning.

"Have patience / Give it just a little more time" might at first be Sandman's plea to his listeners who constantly demanded simple explanation of his music. But heard as the harrowing chorus of "Patience" on the new release Sandbox: The Music of Mark Sandman, it instead is a eulogy and epitaph. In the saddest rock 'n' roll death that wasn't Otis Redding's, Mark Sandman collapsed on stage of a heart attack while playing with his band Morphine in Palestrina, Italy. And in painful comparison to the fact that Redding never saw his "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay" posthumously rise to the top of the pop charts, Sandman never lived to sit on his back porch and drink red wine on 9/9/99, despite his aspirations in "French Fries with Pepper".

Last July marked five years since Sandman's untimely passing, and his close friends and musical companions Billy Conway and Dana Colley -- who, in 2000, marked Sandman's death with the Morphine's posthumous The Night -- now come forward to help pay homage to Mark's life with Sandbox. A ceaseless collaborator and constant creator of new music, Mark spent his life finding new partners with whom to create music of meaning. Mostly in the Boston bars he haunted, Sandman found friends first and then turned them into bandmates whose trials by fire were on weekly display at Cambridge's famous Plough and Stars and the Middle East. With names like Hipnosonic, Candy Bar, Treat Her Orange, and Super Group, along with the well-known Treat Her Right, the better-known Morphine, and the best-named Pale Bros., Sandman left behind an incredible testament to one man's insistence on finding what is good in music.

That dedication, that inspiration, and Sandman's singular talent are what make Sandbox such a strong success. Unlike so many records rushed out in the wake of an artist's untimely passing, this two-disc set (packaged with a wonderful DVD that includes the above-quoted interview from Galician TV) is hardly a pastiche of half-baked, undercooked songs: Sandbox holds up as a complete album to anything ever bearing Sandman's name released in his lifetime. While there are certainly a few weak tracks (a rambling post-kidnapping confession of a war correspondent entitled "Middle East" takes that prize here), they are mostly buried at the end of the package (not unlike the lesser "Free Love" and "Hanging On a Curtain", put near the close of classic Morphine records). For the most part, from start to finish, this thoughtful collage of Mark's material comes off as incredibly cohesive and entirely moving.

As the subtitle suggests, this collection is to be understood as "The Music of Mark Sandman". While band names and bandmates are given credit, it is as an entirety, and not track-by-track. The result prevents the listener from hacking the material up into segments of time and space, instead allowing the music to be heard more fluently. A clearly later track "I Can Do That" juxtaposes nicely with "Tomorrow" which, to my ear at least, seems to be earlier material. (Even in death, Sandman keeps us guessing.) The low-rock sounds made famous by Morphine flow into guitar-driven material which sounds, surprisingly, rather trebly. Despite making his name playing a two-string slide bass in a band that was all about baritone, Sandman -- who claimed guitar was his favorite instrument, just not the right one for Morphine -- masters a variety of sounds and tones in the 31 varieties scooped into Sandbox.

Women -- losing them, gaining them, and the time spent in between -- are the focus of the songs on the set. Like all Sandman's other material (and as promised above in Spanish), here each song is given its own life. "Bathtub" contains not only the reflections of the singer while sitting there soaking, but also captures the feel of an echo-filled, tiled chamber. A song about bragging, "I Can Do That", uses the music to prove the singer's bravado; ethereal harmonics create the dreamy soundscape for an "Imaginary Song". And as for women, they're all over the place: shaking things up like "Mona's Sister", breaking things up like "Doreen", and wreaking divine vengeance in "Goddess". Mark's muse remains unchanged.

"I spent all day yesterday / Watching the grass grow / And what I learned is / The grass really grows slow" makes it seem as if Sandman thought life laid out endlessly before him. "Have patience / Give it just a little time / And everything will work out fine" is a cruel and ironic epitaph to leave the posthumous lips of a good man gone too soon. But perhaps Sandman's message, like his music, is the healing balm that now, after time, comes to remind us that while life is not fair, it is life nonetheless. It is life to make our own, whether learning from the growing grass, making magic with dear friends, or fulfilling the heights of potential within. If life is short, but life is full, the rewards remain. At the very least, from the terse and oblique symbolism that is now Mark Sandman's life, that is the message I can construct today.


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