Morphine’s music is a new twist on traditional rock music. With a two-string bass, lead singer Mark Sandman glides the listener along with soothing life lessons; a baritone sax by Dana Colley provides even more low instrumentation; and the drums of Jerry Dupree and later Bill Conway are much more creative than most 90’s rock bands. No electric guitars here, folks. Most people would not give this band a chance, saying “oh they are different, but they are not good” or another one I have heard is “all their songs sound the same”. To them I say this: Morphine are one of the greatest bands ever because they have created a whole new sound, based on the swing of the 40’s and 50’s combined with the best moody singer-songwriters and crooners of the late 20th century (Cohen, Waits, Cave, even Presley) and actually DONE something with it. They write great songs with a jazzy feel but they still rock in their own way. This music is still you know, verse chorus verse, all that stuff, it is only different in the fact that there is no electric guitar (the sax takes its place). The song quality is way above average, but because they are so often low key the band is often overlooked among the grunge scene of the 90’s. I urge the serious music listener to check out at least their first four albums, because they are all great.
Mark Sandman – Bass; Vocals
Dana Colley – Saxophone
Bill Conway – Drums
Jerry Dupree – Drums (on Good)
Tom Waits, Jack Keroack, Nick Cave, Miles Davis, Bruce Springsteen
1992 – (5 / 5)+ – Good
1993 – (5 / 5) – Cure for Pain
1995 – (4.5 / 5) – Yes
1997 – (4.5 / 5) – Like Swimming
2000 – (3.5 / 5) – The Night
Good – (5 / 5)+
Good is an album of moody, often depressing music. That said, this is easily one of the greatest rock debut albums ever, and it has stood the test of time already better than many albums of the early 1990’s. It helps that Mark Sandman has one of the most original vocal stylings around, with lyrics that are life affirming, which is something most bands lack. Lyric samples: “I’m just a test tube baby”, “my biggest fear is if I let you go, you’ll come and get me in my sleep”, “treat me wrong honey I don’t mind, you never liked me much anyways”, and my favorite, “in a world gone to hell where nobody is safe, do not go quietly unto your grave”. This album is incredibly consistent and perhaps perfect, where every song displays a different nauance of the band’s unique jazz and blues sound . The place slows down on the mellow “You Look Like Rain”, as well as the album closer “I Know You Part II”, being just enough of pace changers to make a difference in an otherwise upbeat affair.
The sax lines are simply genius and they add texture in melodic ways rock n roll never has before in songs like the groovy “Claire”, the casino boogie “Have a Lucky Day”, and the fast pace rock of “You Speak My Language” and “Test Tube Baby / Shoot ‘em Down”. The odd slide-bass adds a sullen mood to songs like “The Other Side” which plays like a Tom Waits song sung at the gates of hell; opener “Good” which sets the atmosphere of the record as dark and mysterious; “The Saddest Song” which turns Sandman’s prose into an accessible melodic fantasia. To top all of this off we have one of the greatest instrumentals ever in “I Know You Part One” a piece that starts off unassuming but builds to an incredibly emotional climax that may be subtle, but is truly beautiful to behold (in fact the band probably could have made a living just off of these types of instrumentals). Simply put Good is an astonishing album with few precedents made by veterans at the top of their game as Sandman was into his forties when he made the record (he previously fronted the Boston based Treat Her Right in the 1980’s). Every song is a treasure though like a lot of masterpieces, it takes a couple of listens to understand its complexity.
Greatest Tracks: Do Not Go Quietly Unto Your Grave, I Know You Part I, Have a Lucky Day, The Only One
Cure for Pain – (5 / 5)
The immediate thing strikes the listener by the second song on Cure for Pain, it is louder than the last record! To most people louder is better, which is not necessarily true, but it is an interesting direction to take the Morphine sound. Songs like “Buena”, “Sheila”, and “A Head with Wings”, quite frankly, rock like few bands ever have before. Further down the road, “I’m Free Now”, “Cure for Pain”, and “Candy” are still very melodic and tricky with words, but more in the laid-back vain of Good than this new rocking sound. But this album combines the two styles in a great and accessible way, making it the album for neophytes to get first. Sometimes the songs try too hard to be soft and different, resulting in the ukele plucks of the timid “In Spite of Me” and “Let’s Take a Trip Together”, the only two mild trip ups on the record, but even they are not that bad, and offer brief respites from the many bass and sax solos.
Other highlights include the verses of “Mary Won’t You Call My Name” with it’s beatnik flavored prose: “Who to love / and who to trust / and who to hold forever by your side”; the melodic sax solo in “A Head with Wings”; the hilarious adulterous mishap in the story of “Thursday”; and of course the cascading intro to “Buena”. My favorite Morphine song of all time is “Candy” by the way, it just nails the whole Morphine experience for me with its effortless flow and lyrics that seem to be timeless “Candy says she has made arrangements for me in the sand / Candy says she wants me with her down in candyland.” Oh, I almost forgot to mention the opener and closer, “Dawna” and Miles Davis’ Funeral”, two short songs that add to the album in subtle, detailed ways. Cure for Pain is a beautiful play on words, an instant classic, and a masterpieces of mood and originally that will not age or be dated in any way. It, along with Good, will forever hold up as example of what rock albums can be, like the band itself. They truly transport you to a different world.
Greatest Tracks: Candy, Buena, Thursday, I’m Free Now
Yes – (4.5 / 5)
To call a song “traditional” song for that band is not a bad thing, especially for a band as good as Morphine. Half the songs on Yes are traditional Morphine songs, but give me those great songs over most any day! “Honey White” is a blistering and fun opening track, “I Had My Chance” and “All Your Way” are beautiful and will shake you down to your very soul, “Super Sex” and “Yes” solidify the Morphine formula by being meaningful yet entertaining, “Scratch” and “Whisper” make it all look and sound so easy. How the band changes its sound for this record is by actually getting experimental, and I mean almost avant-garde for some of this. Not just more alive and soulful like Cure for Pain was, Yes is often weird for the sake of being weird, especially towards the end of the record. Most of it works: “Free Love” has like quadruple overdubbed saxophones that sound like a trip to hell; “Radar” has parts where Sandman stops the music to make some random lyrical ramblings; “Gone for Good” is an acoustic ballad form the band who has never before used regular guitars!
Two songs kind of fall flat on their collective face: “The Jury” is horrid, as Sandman rants some incoherent sentences while the band plays a song very softly in the background and it is not memorable at al, like a Tom Waits tale gone bad; “Sharks” is the fastest song on and that sounds like traditional jazz, and the singer stops the song a la “Radar” to say talk but it does not work as well here. Still, that is only two tracks that are skippable (and this is just my opinion). Some people say that Yes is Morphine’s best record, which I don’t agree with because it is more inconsistent than Cure for Pain and Good. It kind of plays like Morphine for the masses, which is hardly a bad thing but merely a path they chose to take. At least they try and experiment though, and yeah that wouldn’t matter if the music wasn’t up to the task, but after many listens, the majority of the album is still great and recommended.
Greatest Tracks: Free Love, I Had My Chance, Whisper, Honey White
Like Swimming – (4.5 / 5)
This album gets a lot of slack, and I think that is because this is one of the first albums not to change; it is just everything the band has done to this point and kind of re-does it. That does not mean it is weak though, as people often get this confused with a lack of ideas. I would not say this is the first Morphine record you should obtain, but once you absorb any of the first three records, you would enjoy this just as well. No innovation, just great songs. No one can tell me songs like “I Know You Part 3”, “French Fries with Pepper”, “Empty Box” and “Hanging On a Curtain” are not among the best songs Morphine has done. They are, and this album is pretty dang consistent. “Potion” stars it off to a rocking onslaught; “Wishing Well” and “Like Swimming” are typically moody and drifty (though the latter is a better song I will admit), “Early to Bed” and “Swing It Low” show that the band has not completely abandoned experimentation with their keyboard and digital quirks arising, and they are still good at it! “Murder For the Money” is the only song I’d call bland on here, it just doesn’t attempt anything new and is Morphine by the numbers.
This is a fantastic album from a band that always uphold consistency above all else. I would call it a minor masterpiece, why not? Morphine is a band that never got stale in their too short lifetime, despite what you might hear. The music on here is insightful, funny, touching even! Take a song that on most albums would be considered a lesser track like “Eleven O’Clock”, as the band layers effect upon effect to try and grasp at some meaning for an otherwise normal blues groove, they actually succeed in mutating the song into something completely…..Morphine. In the end, one could look at “Eleven O’ Clock” as the quintessential track by the band. It is simple, it is direct, it is easy to like, it fits in with the ideology o fthe group (one can imagine Sandman going out every night about 11 pm), and it is not boring. What more does someone want? Not every album is a milestone in ambition, as some just contain great songs. Like Swimming is like this and worth treasuring for sure.
Greatest Tracks: French Fries With Pepper, Like Swimming, Empty Box, I Know You Part III
The Night – (3.5 / 5)
The best songs on Morphine’s final album sound like the title. Dark, moody, atmospheric, Night sounding songs are at work here. The ones that are rocking or experimental do not work at all, and sound rather contrived. This might have something to do with Sandman’s death in 1999; the front man actually died of a heart attack on stage while playing a show in Italy. A tragedy indeed. Whether this affected The Night or not is almost impossible to tell. Did Sandman have the album finished before he died? Most say he did, and that this was his “final gift to the world”. Well, all i know is it sounds unfinished, and half of these songs are not up to Morphine standards, which is odd, considering the first four albums are all masterpieces to some extent. Take the second song “So Many Ways”, does this song have a melody? An idea at all? No, it just kind of rocks along with a moderate tempo. The same can be said for “Rope On Fire”, “Slow Numbers”, and “Like a Mirror”, which try to be either middle eastern or add a woman’s touch, and neither work. “The Way We Met” is the worst song Morphine have done on a record, matching “Sharks” from Yes, but given that those are the only two Morphine songs I genuinely dislike, not bad! Given these songs, the album sounds like it would come off as disappointing, but luckily there are some numbers to redeem it.
The opener “The Night” and “A Good Woman Is Hard to Find” are good tunes in their own right, but they pale in comparison to the four great songs contained on here. “Top Floor, Bottom Buzzer” is a new Sandman story that ranks up there with his best if you know what to expect, a little debauchery and a little sleaze; “Souvenir” is a song drenched in emotion and gloom, but at the same time radiates with power when Sandman whispers “souvenir of nothing”; “I’m Yours, Your Mine” has one of the best baritone sax openings of any song, and radiates the old Morphine strength of will power. Last but is best, “take me with you when you go” has a deeper meaning added now that Sandman had recently passed away. The song is one of the best closers to a career a band has ever done though, truly something one needs to hear and a fitting epitaph for one of Rock n Roll’s best songwriters. Well, this is a grim review! In all seriousness though, a songwriter cannot totally die because his songs will always be with us. A band like Morphine cannot be forgotten because the music is that good. They did not fit in to the times or the styles and are simply and always themselves, like all of the best bands. Their reputation will increase as long as people like good music, which means forever. The Night may be the bands weakest album, but hey, if you love the first four or want to adventure into the end of Sandman’s career, it is still worth owning, just know it is a bit of a bumpy ride. The smooth travels Morphine had us ride on had us spoiled, but every car runs out of gas sometime.
Greatest Tracks: Take Me with You; Souvenir; I’m Yours, Your Mine; Top Floor, Bottom Buzzer