Album of the Week, April 5: Cure For Pain by Morphine

MorphineCureMorphine formed in Boston’s fertile alternative music scene in 1989. Vocalist and bassist Mark Sandman emerged from the ashes of blues-rock outfit Treat Her Right, joined by sax virtuoso Dana Colley, late of alt-jazz combo Three Colors. They recruited drummer Jerome Deupree and determined to make their own kind of music. Calling it “low rock,” the trio decided not to use guitar but centered their sound on Colley’s sax work. Sandman opted for two unusual choices, primarily driving the sound with a two-string slide bass; his distinctive baritone voice was also key to the moody sound. Deupree contributed solid drum work, with Sandman’s old Treat Her Right pal Billy Conway swapping in occasionally. They gained attention for their powerful live shows and unique, brooding music. Rykodisc signed them, picking up distribution of their locally released debut, Good. That disc introduced low rock nicely but only hinted at what Morphine was capable of. One year later, the band released a truly distinctive alt-rock masterpiece.

Title Cure For Pain
Act Morphine
Label Rykodisc Release Date September 14, 1993
Producer Paul Q. Kolderie; Mark Sandman (tracks 1, 7, 11, 13)
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
  1. Dawna
  2. Buena
  3. I’m Free Now
  4. All Wrong
  5. Candy
  6. A Head With Wings
  7. In Spite of Me
  8. Thursday
  9. Cure For Pain
  10. Mary Won’t You Call My Name?
  11. Let’s Take A Trip Together
  12. Sheila
  13. Miles Davis’ Funeral

Cure For Pain finds a band fully confident in their mission, building on the promise of Good and delivering a flawless set of tracks that prove they had a real sound, not just a gimmick. Sandman was always a powerful vocalist, but his control and flexibility show richer colors and his songwriting is more consistent and intriguing than ever. The disc also captures more of the passion that Morphine poured into their live shows, adding a welcome spark.

Things open with the brief, noirish Dawna, a haunting bit of sax work that offers the perfect greeting. Buena steps right in with a surging slide bass line and Sandman’s perfect first line, “I hear a voice…” The song steps into high gear, showing off a fun energy that really rocks. It’s a surprisingly buoyant track that gets things rolling nicely. On I’m Free Now, things keep rolling but the tone gets much darker. Sandman’s character might be free, but he’s not happy about it. His aching vocal fuses seamlessly with Colley’s urgent sax line in a smoky song of regret.

All Wrong gets steamy. “She had a smiled that swerved all over the road,” Sandman intones, offering a sneaky, lusty vocal. Like the previous track, the title has some irony. We’re not convinced that the subject’s dark charms are really all wrong. Colley’s solo provides the frenzied energy that Sandman hits at, creating just the right tension. Romance continues on Candy, a fairly straightforward love song that’s sequenced in nicely. The action gets a bit trippy on A Head With Wings, a wonderful flight of fancy that merges lyric with music in a smart romp.

The album’s centerpiece is one of Morphine’s finest moments even though it doesn’t sound much like Morphine. Sandman offers a scratchy whisper of a vocal over the disc’s lone acoustic guitar figure. Local alt-bluegrass player Jim Ryan (of Blood Oranges) provides a beautiful mandolin line. Lyrically, it’s classic Sandman — haunting, dark, and profoundly human. Musically, it’s a smart anomaly, perfectly situated in the middle of the action.

We return to our tales of lust and danger with Thursday, a fun piece about the dangers of adultery. It’s a wonderful capsule of a song, a tightly wound story that gives just the right amount of detail while the band move the action along. Cure For Pain is more than just a title track, it’s a statement of purpose. The trio blend into a storm of yearning, knowing that better days might be out there. In the meantime, Sandman offers this quintessentially Morphine observation: “I propose a toast to my self control. You’ll see it crawling helpless on the floor.”

With Mary Won’t Call My Name? some joy pours back into the sound. It’s another great moment of sequencing, offering a jaunty bit of fun. Sandman demonstrates his vocal dexterity, sounding just at home with this urgent but optimistic tune as he does on the darker tracks. Let’s Take A Trip Together looks for a safer place for the singer and his love. With an almost claustrophobic echoing sound it captures the need for escape while Sandman’s lethargic delivery provides a tense counterpoint. It’s another highlight on an album of standouts.

Sheila is a bit of black magic, a rolling tune that hints of New Orleans. It’s another nicely constructed tale with a propulsive musical backdrop. Sandman’s slide bass is particularly effective in creating the mood. The disc wraps up on a meditative note with the quiet, brooding Miles Davis’ Funeral. It’s a fitting ode to a musical pioneer and a perfect bookend to the instrumental opener. From the first surge of sax to the quietly fading notes of tribute, Cure For Pain is an inspired musical journey.

The word “alternative” may be a bit over-used in describing music. With Morphine, however, it’s spot-on. They offered something truly different, serving it up with passion, making what could have been an oddity into a compelling, cohesive sound. Cure For Pain is a one-of-a-kind album and a shining example of the joy and power of following your muse.

FURTHER LISTENING: Morphine’s musical adventure was cut tragically short after ten years and five albums when Sandman collapsed onstage, dying shortly thereafter of a heart attack. All of their albums have something wonderful to offer. Good is a solid starting point and would rate as a great album if it hadn’t been so fully eclipsed by Cure For Pain. The band’s third outing, Yes, is more experimental, offering some interesting variation on the low rock sound while suffering from some less effective material. DreamWorks picked up the band for their fourth disc, Like Swimming. It’s a more polished effort, far more consistent than Yes but never quite as compelling; overall, however, it’s probably their second best disc. The Night was released after Sandman’s death; it’s more in the vein of Like Swimming, with some interesting new textures added.

Morphine were prolific, with dozens of songs recorded but not included in the main albums. B-Sides and Otherwise is a fun collection that shows off the band’s varied skills but it’s clear why the songs weren’t included on the finished products. Sadly, with the trio’s output split between two labels, there isn’t any single good compilation that captures their work. The Best of Morphine does a surprisingly good job of capturing the Rykodisc years, however.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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