Morphine – [Album]

Saturday, 31 October 2009

At the end of the day, when the books finally get opened on bassist Mark Sandman and his band Morphine, it will be found that while rock history is dotted with bands that made a tremendous impact but seemed to come from nowhere, Morphine set a whole new template for the concept. At a time when bands were either expanding the scope of their music to points they could never possibly reproduce on stage or self-analyzing – in some cases, literally – to death (the years when Morphine was active were those between 1989 and 1999 – when Guns N' Roses went too far, Nirvana broke through and then broke down, Alice In Chains hit both their highest and lowest points, and every flavor of high life with diminished returns was tasted by others at the same time too), Morphine established all new voices to articulate similar sentiments and made legends with them instead of myths; it was real rather than cultivated. You want big stories? While other musicians around the same time were trying to chase the dragon into oblivion or leave a pint of proverbial blood onstage to prove their mettle, Mark Sandman beat them all to the punch and died of a heart attack mid-set on a festival stage in Italy. Big sounds? Morphine produced breathtaking and heart-racing images that could be exciting and terrifying all at once and they did it using decidedly non-rockist values (most regularly, just a two or three-string electric dulcimer played with a slide, saxophone and drums) and eerily obscured styling played stark and clear as a brand new bell. While other bands were attempting to articulate themselves and their insecurities to their fans, Morphine was making their fans feel them.

That was Morphine's gift to listeners: minimalist music that sounded expansive because it left gaps in each song just spacious enough to let a listener's imagination do the work and fill them.

Because of that open-to-interpretation dynamic, it would probably come as no surprise to fans if they learned that Morphine's vaults are well-stocked with B-Sides, outtakes, rarities and other interesting flotsam that has waited to be discovered, and that's where At Your Service dutifully makes its entrance. The two-disc set features just what fans need; At Your Service plays out some unique but aborted ideas for those still suffering from Morphine withdrawals since Sandman's untimely passing in 1999 but, again, that left-to-interpretation vibe is the thing that lets listeners inhabit these thirty-five tracks.

As with so many other posthumous releases of its type, At Your Service offers some pretty interesting interpretations and outtakes of Morphine's material, but it won't be for everyone. In order to appreciate the alternate takes of songs including “Patience,” “Buena,” “The Night” and “All Wrong,” one just have an idea of what the originally-released cuts sounded like. In the case of “Buena,” for example, seasoned Morphine veterans will thrill to the menacing piano line that sticks like glue to the dulcimer, thus creating a darker, more sinister vibe while odd and understated swirling digital time delay effects crown the proceedings for just the right amount of implied mania. It's a different sense for the song certainly, but the subtlety of the differences will almost definitely be lost on the uninitiated; although the may draw new listeners that could say the same of the originally released cuts. Far less up for debate are the live tracks because, truly, each is a horse of a different color from the originals. With darkened elastic soul, Sandman hypnotizes listeners with his dry-eyed and wooden baritone voice before Dana Colley rushes right in on his heels and bring those left reeling with haunting and lonely but relentlessly urban sax chops. It's a dark, sweet and low-down current that Morphine rides, and made fragile by the fact that audience members could talk easily over it because the register of the instruments is so low. Because of that, the crowd keeps quiet in the live cuts on At Your Service and lets the band work them over, gladly on tunes like “Sexy Christmas Baby Mine,” “Super Sex,” “Good” and “Radar” – it's dark and sultry and no one wants to miss a drop of this good stuff.

Whether initially intended as this sort of release or not, fans will be left feeling much like they did the first time they heard Cure For Pain or The Night: a little relaxed, a little lucky to have been there and, for whatever reason, glowing just a little from the intimacy. Even for the long-familiar, it will be surprising for listeners to find themselves in the state they're in as “Shade” fades out. For those that picked up on the band two decades ago and have now had a decade to detox, that the same feeling comes rushing back so strong, so fast is unnerving – particularly from an odds-and-ends set. New converts won't think so much about it, they'll just start looking around for another taste. It's tragic, in a way, because it's unlikely that there will be any other releases to follow At Your Service and the listeners that only catch on now are the biggest losers; as any junkie (or long-time fan of the band) can tell you, there is no adequate substitute for Morphine.



At Your Service
is out now. Buy it here on Amazon .

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