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Morphine Hits the Veins

By Brendan Doherty

JULY 20, 1998:  "To me," says Mark Sandman, "a good noir is a story about someone who tries to do something slick and gets over their head and everything just goes to pieces worse than they could have ever imagined." Sandman sits on an overstuffed chair in his Cambridge loft smoking American Spirits, pausing for dramatic effect. "And then it gets even worse."

His gravelly voice is the sound of a night on the town, a night on the edge. If the Sandman has a lullaby to put you to sleep with, it's the sound of the grit and guts of the street set to the hypnotic sounds of the band Morphine. For the past eight years, they have served as the soundtrack to late nights, to loneliness, to a stacked deck. Sandman's lullabies, far from inducing sleep, are musical telegrams from all-night taxicab rides, peopled with dimly lit characters in a world of pulp fiction lowlife and high intoxicant. Morphine is a rock band that exists without a guitar. No matter what you think about a band without a guitar, the sultry rhythm-driven sound of Sandman's bass, Dana Colley's baritone sax and Billy Conway's drumming speaks for itself. Their ability to create the atmosphere expands wildly. Sandman's reedy, smoked-too-much baritone complements his custom cobbled two string (the lowest strings) bass and the band's remaining parts, a baritone sax and lyrical drumming.

"I don't know how anyone can call my bass or our instrumentation a gimmick," Sandman says. "Those notes could come from anything. I don't really know how to play a regular bass, and because it's not a regular instrument, I can avoid doing the usual things that you hear."

Spanning the decade, Morphine's string of essential recordings illustrates their versatility with simple ingredients. Over two wildly successful indie records, 1993's Cure For Pain and 1995's Yes, the trio made their way into record collections, movie soundtracks, television music tracks and packed-out club dates. Instead of playing second banana on more successful tours, Morphine chose for a number of years to play smaller venues as a headliner, with several dates in larger cities.

Their latest, Like Swimming, heralded the inclusion of a new bass guitar for Sandman, as well as a number of other instruments--synthesizer, acoustic guitar and organ. This one has one bass string and two regular (but low) guitar strings. Like Swimming is as strong as any in their catalog. On it, Sandman redoes his lowlife pulp characters, psychological and chemical dependency. In other words, more of the same, but better. "Give me a potion to make me love you," sings Sandman on the first cut, "Potion." The song is a sardonic updating of Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I Put a Spell on You," using occult imagery to fuel a sense of erotic and otherworldly power and danger. The gruffingly swinging, all-baritone arrangements drive home the point. "Give me a potion to make me care," he adds. "Make it a double."

"The fans of Morphine are affected by us at least partially in a physical way," Sandman says. "We're trying to make good records and take our time. We've found a good audience of music lovers. They come because they like the music, not the scene. I'm not sure we provide good shock value. There aren't ritual piercings on stage," he says, trailing off and lighting another cigarette over the phone audibly.

The band is already recording the as-yet-untitled follow-up. It will include guest musicians and new instruments. This tour, in between studio sessions, should road test some of the new material, as well as songs from Like Swimming.

"Like Swimming has been out of my hands for a year and a half," Sandman says. "We're going for some different sounds, but I can't tell you about it. It's top secret. I can tell you already it's going to be different. We're experimenting and recording in an official studio called the Crack House. It isn't one, but it sure looks like it."

And just like in a noir film, few things are like they seem. Everyone is a double agent. Everyone's hopes are dashed, everyone's faith wrecked. Faith, a drug like any other is a lot like Morphine: a bad habit that dares you to take more.

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