Morphine came out of the alternative rock explosion of the early ‘90s, though they didn’t really sound like much else from that period. A power trio with saxophones instead of guitar, they shared some of the darkness and rawness of those bands but infused it with elements of jazz, blues and funk to create something that was quite unique.
The lineup in this debut consist of leader and main songwriter Mark Sandman on vocals, (a quite prominent) bass and some other instruments, Dana Colley on various saxophones and Jerome Deupree on percussion (joined on some tracks by Billy Conway). This lineup would last until Sandman died of a heart attack during a show in Italy (!). What is immediately noticeable is that the musicianship on this album is a lot higher than on your average alternative rock album, while at the same time being somewhat restrained (there isn’t really much solos here at all with the exceptions of some sax solos which are never overdone). However, the album is filled with slightly complex, but groovy and catchy bass lines, and rather varied drumming (sounds quite jazzy and varies a lot with the technique and use of drums, though my drum knowledge is limited). The saxophones replace the role of the guitar, coming with quite a lot of cool riffs or complementing the vocal melody (Do Not Go Quietly Unto Your Grave).
The band is really tight, and the music is surprisingly groovy, which together with the jazziness and the oily vocals makes the whole thing sounds damn cool (this album in general is great to show your friends how cool you are) and sexy (something that cannot be said for much other alternative rock). The songs doesn’t really grab you immediately, and on the first listen it is mostly the cool atmosphere and sound that carries you through, though on repeated listenings you discover all those small cool melodies (The Saddest Song is probably the best song melodically), riffs and subtle choruses. Still, it cannot be avoided that the album has a tendency to sound quite samey after a while. The vocals aren’t that varied, and however much they try, the combination of sax and bass runs a bit stagnant by the end. When you listen more closely, you see that the compositions are quite different, but when you’re finished with the album, you still get the feeling that the songs themselves are a somewhat hazy memory (which may have been the idea of the band, as the album sounds quite “hazy” itself). Their intelligent use of dynamics and tension make the album more interesting to listen to, and as long as you like their sound, there is no reason to neglect the album for the sake of diversity, but at least it shows a possibility for improvement (I listened to Cure for Pain some years ago, though I don’t remember how it sounded compared to this).
One of the things in music I really respect is whether the performers manage to realize their vision, and it seems that Morphine have managed precisely that. They have developed a quite unique sound that is engaging throughout the album, and both the songs and skills are good enough to make you keep returning to record, though its drawbacks also make you want to explore the band further.