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Moving On 

Ex-Morphine bandmates re-emerge as the Twinemen after the death of their charismatic frontman

Wednesday, Aug 28 2002
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Though I lived in Boston for four years, I somehow managed to sleepwalk my way through small clubs like the Middle East and the Plough and Stars without seeing Morphine play in its own hometown. The first and only time I saw the Beat noir trio in concert was at a similarly small, albeit smokier, bar in New York. Standing a few feet away from the stage, I fell under the spell of charismatic crooner and frontman Mark Sandman, who performed with the slinky nonchalance of a Cheshire cat. The bluesy three-piece was a novelty in the world of rock 'n' roll, relinquishing the typical guitar riffs and solos for seductive horns, groovy bass lines, and haunting vocals. It was the kind of dark, sonorous style that made you feel like you had the right to be pretentious, and that made the threesome a cult favorite and a regular on college radio.

While Morphine's success was without a doubt a group effort -- its distinctive sound owed much to Dana Colley's boisterous baritone sax and Billy Conway's restrained, rhythmic drumming -- it was Sandman who owned the crowd. So when the vocalist died suddenly of a heart attack during a concert in Rome on July 3, 1999, it seemed that Morphine would take its final bow as well. But Colley and Conway endured, teaming up with singer/songwriter Laurie Sargent to form Orchestra Morphine, a nine-piece ensemble, to pay tribute to their former band's moody blues. After touring the U.S. and Italy in an attempt to revive Morphine's music, the trio embarked on a new project, the Twinemen. For Colley and Conway, it was their first original venture since Morphine.

Unlike many bands struggling to survive after the untimely demise or unfortunate departure of a key player, the Twinemen don't try to play down their musical past by pretending it never existed. Instead, they expand on Morphine's success and honor Sandman's legacy. The group takes its name (and the cover of its self-titled debut) from the late singer's semi-autobiographical cartoon strip about a three-headed ball of twine, a not-so-subtle metaphor for the solidarity and incestuousness of band life, and the Twinemen named their new label, Hi-N-Dry, after the Boston recording studio where Morphine regularly made its music.

Despite the nods to days gone by, the group carves its own path and avoids getting obscured by Morphine's broad shadow. The resultant tunes are hypnotic and cool, familiar without merely regurgitating the old band's characteristic sound. In Sargent they've found a vocal powerhouse, whose come-hither lyrics, spoken-word raps, and sporadic French singing promise a new versatility. Meanwhile, Colley also breaks out, experimenting with the bass, banjo, and other instruments. The Twinemen have a lot to live up to, and the comparisons to Morphine are inevitable, but based on this first run, they can put the past to rest.

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Lisa Hom

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