Opiate for the Masses

Morphine's moody, sax-flavored sound plays like the soundtrack to a dime-store novel

Staggering piles of critical accolades have been heaped on the band Morphine. Scan a newsstand and try to find a rag that's reviewed the Boston trio unfavorably — you'd have better luck finding a write-up that resists calling it “addictive.” And Morphine junkies aren't restricted to the pages of the rock press, either. Upon the release of 1993's Cure for Pain, Esquire claimed the band for its aging readership by calling Morphine's music “punk fusion-cum-cabaret.” In retaliation, Seventeen swooned, “Hotcha!”

But leave it to People, of all people, to nail it down: “If Raymond Chandler had taken up rock and roll instead of pen and paper,” the magazine surmised, “the result would have sounded pretty much like this.” It's true: Morphine grafts the gumshoe pace of the dime-store novel onto a novel approach to rock instrumentation. Its pairing of pop and pulp assures the band's popularity with those of the writerly persuasion.

Mark Sandman is Morphine's frontman, two-string slide bassist, chief conceptualist and resident librarian. Though he does cop to an affinity for noir fiction, Sandman suggests there's more to Morphine than coffee stains and yellowed edges. “I mean, I read a lot of those books,” he says, “but I don't read them over and over.”

Indeed, Sandman prefers a scattering of loose-leaf ideas to the bound commitment of a finished volume. Although Morphine sold more than 300,000 copies of Cure for Pain and should challenge that figure with yes, its latest release on Rykodisc, Sandman keeps his options open. Formerly with the blues-rock group Treat Her Right, Sandman now plays with a variety of pickup groups around Boston, including the funky, horn-fed Hypnosonics and a number of musical spoken-word projects.

“I'm starting up new bands to chase after ideas,” he says in deliberate, honey-colored tones. “I've come up with a way to write songs that are really easy to show people, so they can spend their time listening to each other play music, rather than trying to remember if this is the part with three accents instead of two, or whatever.”

Even with Morphine, a band whose distinctive sound has hit its stride, Sandman seeks constant renewal. “We're trying to keep the definition of 'what's a Morphine song?' really flexible,” he says. “Pretty soon it's going to be just about anything. We've been holding back a lot of the stranger things. We're feeling braver now. It's a big cosmos out there.”

The appeal of Sandman's band stems from the singer's supple delivery gliding alongside his unorthodox two-string bass and the equally voluptuous tones of Dana Colley's baritone sax, a swirling convergence of underground currents tethered only by Billy Conway's restrained cocktail drumming. Sandman attributes his plaintive bass patterns to the liquefied notes of Arabic music and Delta blues — with an additional nod to one of the most clamorous bands currently working.

“I had been hearing one-stringed instruments in music from foreign countries,” he explains. “Some American things, too, like this guy Lonnie Pitchford. There was also this old record from the '50s called The Cherokee Dance that featured a guy playing something called a unitar.

“And then I saw the guy in the Cows play his bass with a beer bottle one night, and that sounded like it had some potential. I tried it, and I liked it.”

Ridding himself of all those extra strings has been liberating for Sandman. “The less there are, the more you're free to be really expressive on the instrument,” he says. “Practically speaking, if you lay a glass bar across the neck, it's hard to hit some strings and not the others.”

Sometimes even the two strings he uses prove to be too much. Sandman says he played half of Morphine's first album, the independent release Good (reissued by Rykodisc last year), on one string. “I found out recently that Muddy Waters — who's one of my favorite guys — based his slide style on just one guitar string,” he adds.

Yes finds Morphine poised to strike commercially — to the extent, anyway, that a spare, “implied” form of music can win converts on conventional radio. Sandman says Rykodisc's “fortunetellers” saw “Honey White,” the devilish lead track, “in their crystal ball,” with the mid-tempo “All Your Way” penciled in as the follow-up and “Super Sex” doing advance work in Europe — “except France,” he laughs, a bit bewildered.

“I personally like 'Whisper' the most,” Sandman finally admits. “It's got the deepest, fullest thing.”

Whatever that indescribable Morphine thing is, it seems perfectly suited to motion pictures. Last year's sleeper hit Spanking the Monkey showcased a handful of tunes from Cure for Pain.Sandman himself seems camera-ready, much in the manner of John Lurie of the Lounge Lizards. His unkempt locks and coolly drooping eyelids perfectly complement his cigarette persona, and his penchant for street poetry seems drawn from a long line of filmspeak. “I might do some voiceover for a movie — the life of Rimbaud,” he says, adding wryly, “I'd like to work with a good director, if you know anybody.”

One of Sandman's best works to date is a smoldering reading of “Temptation,” a song made popular by Bing Crosby, which Sandman recorded with the big band Either/Orchestra. “I still look through the easy-listening section for song ideas,” Sandman reports. “I found a couple of potentials on a Dean Martin record, but then I read his biography … It's a hard thing, to find a cool jazz tune that hasn't been covered to death.”

Though his studied suavity looks sharp behind the wheel of Rat Pack standards, the restless Sandman knows he prefers the ample leg room of Morphine's originality. “I think there's a lot of space in the band for people to read into it what they want,” he says. Why run on retreads when you're getting great mileage on your own?

Morphine plays Fri, March 31, with Cake and Sat, April 1, with Tattletail at the Great American Music Hall in S.F.; call 885-0750.

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