“She told me things about her life / She never told me she was someone’s wife,” sings Mark Sandman on the first song on Treat Her Right’s first album. The “low guitar”- player’s pulp-fiction narratives, with appropriately sinister and smoky musical accompaniment, would later flourish with Morphine, but in Treat Her Right he had to share time with the more conventional, blues-derived offerings of guitarist David Champagne. The Massachusetts quartet was distinguished less by its songs than its exotic taste in offbeat covers (the debut album concludes with James Blood Ulmer’s “Where Did All the Girls Come From?,” the second tackles Captain Beefheart’s “Hit a Man”) and sparse instrumentation: slide guitar, a second guitar doubling as a bass, bare-bones drums and harmonica. While the group occasionally veered toward finger-snapping pop (as on Sandman’s “Marie,” from Tied to the Tracks), they preferred to play variations on Canned Heat’s swamp- blues, typified by such “On the Road Again” knockoffs such as Champagne’s “Big Medicine,” also on the second LP. What’s Good for You, the band’s post-majors third album, leans heavily on an eclectic range of covers, giving the band’s oddball treatment to songs by Bob Dylan, Buck Owens, John Lee Hooker and the Rolling Stones.
After Treat Her Right dissolved (sending harmonicat Jim Fitting off to play with, among others, the The), Sandman formed Morphine with saxophonist Dana Colley and drummer Jerome Deupree, replaced during the recording of Good by Treat Her Right’s Billy Conway. With Sandman’s two-string slide bass and baritone voice — singing in much the same range as Colley’s baritone saxophone — Morphine immediately established a minimalist, low-end sound that could have easily become a gimmick: a “power trio” not built around the sound of an electric guitar. Instead, with sly intelligence, Morphine expanded its offbeat vocabulary on each album.
Good establishes the goods, excavating a slippery, sultry groove that suggests blues and be-bop without becoming either by providing ample room in the spacious mix for two evocative voices: Sandman, with his smoldering-cigarette vignettes, and Colley, who veers from staccato riffing and hot-rod honks to Albert Ayler squeals. In “You Speak My Language” and “You Look Like Rain,” the treated vocals and dissonant soundscapes push the noise envelope.
Cure for Pain refines the sound and Sandman’s terse, hard-boiled lyricism: “Thursday” could have been taken straight out of a Jim Thompson novel, a tawdry met- her-at-the-poolhall scenario in which violence lurks in the not-too-distant future. “A Head With Wings” and “Buena” both rock more ferociously than anything on Good.
With Yes, the band creates its most effortless blend of noir moodiness, experimental skronk and full-bore ravers. “If I am guilty so are you…It was March 4, 1982,” Sandman sings on “Radar,” a typically delicious collision of the mundane and the malevolent. In Sandman’s world, all the characters have something to hide as they flit among paranoia, fear and temptation. The group mines ferocious neo-funk on “Honey White,” trolls avant-garde waters in “Sharks,” offers a sunny respite in “All Your Way” and even delivers an acoustic kissoff, “Gone for Good.” (Drawn from the album as a single, “Super Sex” became an EP with the addition of live takes on “Birthday Cake” and “Have a Lucky Day” and the instrumental “Sundayafternoonweightlessness.”) Having initially drawn attention for its novel attributes, Morphine developed into a terrific band for the most traditional of reasons: its songs.
Sandman released a nifty solo single (“Swing It Low” b/w “Bought Myself a Steak”) under the name Like Swimming. He also resumed Supergroup, an informal trio he had with Chris Ballew (whose two-string bass style was inspired by Sandman) before the latter went off to form Presidents of the United States of America, long enough to cut a naff live 45 (“It’s Not Like That Anymore” b/w “Telepathic Cathy”).
Like Swimming features the “Swing It Low” single along with a slew of adventurous, rock-oriented new songs, ending claims that the group’s setup was intrinsically limited. After a short, moody instrumental sets up a deceptive sense of tranquility, the disc breaks out like a case of measles. Morphine still cooks up dark-corner- flickering-streetlight-trench-coat scores (“I Know You (Pt. III),” “Like Swimming” “Empty Box”), but the majority of the album swings the joint, baby! “Potion” is calming one moment, explosive the next. “Wishing Well” runs on wobbly be-bop bass and jazzy drumming but still works up a brutish head of steam. The fuzzed-out and menacing “Murder for the Money,” with its ghostly delayed vocal effects, roars like few other Morphine tracks have dared. After exploring all the noir avenues and rock highways, the band flips the script with two jubilant, wholly original party bops, “Early to Bed” and “Eleven O’Clock,” that allow this normally staid-sounding band some well-deserved groove time. As a clueless film critic might say, “Like Swimming? I love it!”
The Japanese Eleven O’Clock EP contains two versions of the title track and three non-album tracks, including the spacey “Kerouac,” in which Sandman bares his beat-poet soul. That cut is also on B-Sides and Otherwise, a spotty collection of live tracks, soundtrack offerings and flips. Aside from the selections buzzing on free-form atmospherics that bring the trio uncomfortably close to skronky jazz, there are four truly effective numbers: “Mile High,” a blazing romp with trumpet breakouts; “Shame,” a classic shot of Morphine from the “Cure for Pain” CD-single; the slow, steady and ultimately rewarding “Pulled Over the Car;” and the spoken- word concert favorite “My Brain,” which poses the age-old question, “I don’t know how to tune a brain / Do you?”
On July 3, 1999, Sandman collapsed onstage and died after suffering a heart attack during a Morphine show near Rome, Italy. His posthumous output serves as validation for the immense loss suffered by the musical community, especially in the Massachusetts area.
Recorded in ’94 but not officially released until six years later, Bootleg Detroit (a “low-fi recording by a fan in the audience,” as the back cover proudly proclaims) is a rowdy, cheer-drenched sampler of Morphine’s first two albums that captures the group’s live fervor. The sound is a tad muddy, but the in-the-flesh version of “You Look Like Rain” and the otherwise unavailable “Come Along” are worth the price of admission.
Finished with loving care by Colley and Conway from sessions with Sandman before his death, The Night is a sad and somber farewell. Aside from a few forceful rolls in the hay — “A Good Woman Is Hard to Find,” “I’m Yours, Your Mine,” “Top Floor, Bottom Buzzer” — the songs are late-night sob stories backed by intricate percussion and woeful sax. “You’re a bedtime story,” Sandman moans on the title track, “the one that keeps the curtain closed.” Viola and cello take the album’s closer, “Take Me With You When You Go,” to higher ground, giving fresh meaning to Sandman’s unintended bon voyage. Not that The Night is a total bummer: the tone may be dour due to the singer’s sudden death, but the music is the most fully realized and finely textured Morphine ever mustered. Besides being a near-perfect elegy for an extremely inventive musician, the album showed how the trio’s sound could have traveled just about anywhere, and done it with class.
The limited timescale of The Best of Morphine: 1992 – 1995 makes it a redundant collection, although it does boast three previously unreleased treasures: “Jack and Tina,” “Pretty Face” and “Sexy Baby Christmas Mine.” The more compelling three-disc Sandbox compiles choice cuts, rare videos and live footage from Sandman’s many collaborations (including Hipnosonics, Pale Bros. and the Either/Orchestra). With few exceptions, this astonishing 31- song tribute culled from Sandman’s vast body of work by the remaining Morphine men is nothing but memorable hooks and perceptive storytelling. Fitting’s harping and Colley’s squawking dominate several tunes, but the only threads running throughout are Sandman’s words and beautiful baritone. Piano pops up in “Tomorrow,” melodic allusions to the Kinks’ “Celluloid Heroes” surface in “Patience,” blow- your-woofer rock drives “Goddess” and “Doreen,” and “Hombre” and “Hotel Room” will leave you sobbing in your cerveza. Each song brings something new to the table (with over 30 backing musicians and four producers, how could it not?), but every course is a delicacy.
Along with their diligence in completing both The Night and Sandbox, Colley and Conway also have worked on the Mark Sandman Music Education Fund, which benefits music programs in the Cambridge school system, and Orchestra Morphine, a touring amalgamation of musicians dedicated to full-band recreations of Morphine songs. From the latter project the two chose vocalist Laurie Sargent (once of Boston ’80s band Face to Face) to form Twinemen, a compelling new unit that doesn’t seem to mind living under Sandman’s shadow. On the self-titled debut, Colley carries on the late singer’s trademark “low guitar” — best demonstrated in the murky throb of “Spinner” — as well as ominous lower-than-low vocals on the chilly “Golden Hour” and “Learn to Fly.” Sargent’s smoky turns at the mic, especially “Little by Little” and “Signs of Life,” are elegant and reserved (sorta like Cowboy Junkies if they dug Miles more than Hank). Because of her finesse, Twinemen never truly rocks — at least not in the way Morphine could — but the songs are winning with their detailed, almost fragile structures. (Anyone with dry eyes after “Who’s Gonna Sing,” Conway’s moving album-ender, is a heartless bastard!)
Twinemen’s six double-disc live CDs (including one shared with Orchestra Morphine) are fine if not slightly redundant representations of the group’s concert capabilities. Conway’s knotty timekeeping shines, as does Sargent’s self-assured chanteuse vibe. Colley proves he’s a master sax-blaster and is respectful enough vocally not to entirely ape Sandman in an extended stroll through Morphine’s “11 O’Clock” (although he ends up sounding just like him anyway).
On Twinemen’s second studio album, Sideshow, the group tries to find a sound of its own. Is it looming mood- pieces like “Wishers” and “A Little Strange,” or is it the cautious jazzy stuff like “In My Head” and “Speed of Light”? Maybe it’s the acoustic prettiness of “Twilight” and “Little Ones,” or the Cramps-meets-Tom-Waits noise of “Saturday.” In the end, it’s an assembly of all of it, with newfound elements like searing harmonica from Colley and more room for not-so-low guitar. The ghost of Morphine still haunts the proceedings (check into “The Definition of Truth” to be spooked), but who can blame them? It’s their sound now, and it remains intact and vital.