The Boston Phoenix
July 8 - 15, 1999

Mark Sandman

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What we said

Mark through the eyes and ears of the Phoenix

compiled by Carly Carioli

Mark Sandman Here's a sampling of some of the Phoenix's coverage of Mark Sandman and Morphine over the past six years.

"In some ways Morphine are about the least likely success story to hit the Boston circuit. For starters, there's that notorious instrumental line-up: drums, baritone sax, two-string slide bass, and not a damn thing more. . . . But there are other good reasons why Morphine were anything but a sure thing. Their music owes as much to blues and Vegas grind as it does to rock, which would have made them more likely to play roots-type clubs than to sell out the Middle East or the Causeway the way they've been doing. Then there's the 'spinoff from an old band' syndrome (two of the three members were in Treat Her Right) -- which can be the kiss of death, given the scene's prejudices against folks who've been around for a while.

On the other hand, there are a few reasons why Morphine's rise makes perfect sense. They may not sound like a rock band, but on a good night they can kick and swing like one; and their heavy use of open space can be a refreshing change from the tradition of louder-is-better. Besides, frontman Mark Sandman has shown a knack for memorable songs ever since he wrote Treat Her Right's signature number, 'I Think She Likes Me,' in the mid '80s. Sandman is one of those guys who seems to have been born to be on stage in front of a band . . ."

-- Brett Milano, September 10, 1993

"Morphine didn't fit in a box and they still don't. They're not grunge, they're not punk, and they're sure as hell not techno. But they're not Frankenstein, either. . . . It's obvious that they're a damn good rock band, as meat-and-potatoes as Chuck Berry, with the same side helpings of blues, jazz, and R&B. . . . Dig a little deeper and you'll notice a seasoned, swinging groove that Charlie Watts would be proud to call his own. . . . And to top it off, Sandman's lyrics, which touch on sexy adult themes like pacts with the Devil and illicit affairs, have more in common with the blues than with any of Seattle's twentysomethings."

-- Matt Ashare, May 27, 1994

Matt Ashare's reflection on Mark Sandman
And, friends and fans look back at Mark and Morphine
Morphine/Mark Sandman links

"The blues, according to more than one legend, are about mastery and prowess, especially sexual prowess. I'm a 60-minute man. I'm a back-door man. I'm a hootchy-kootchy man. . . . Why does Robert Johnson have such big hands? (It ain't just for fast finger work on the guitar, baby.) Why does a dog lick himself down there? Because he can.

Maybe Morphine's new album, yes (Rykodisc), should have been called 'Yes, We Can.' Whatever it is, the trio want you to know they can do it, whether it's creating a full sonic palette without a guitar, or Dana Colley blowing baritone and tenor sax simultaneously on two tracks, or Mark Sandman getting by with just two strings on his bass, or drummer Billy Conway driving you wild with anticipation by dropping out for a few bars, or Sandman's deadpan baritone, dripping with cool and sharp like an icicle, insinuating everything but too slippery to pin down. 'You want a super ultra maxi funky American love baby?', Sandman asks on 'Super Sex,' to no one in particular. 'I got it all year long, ha ha.'

Morphine are what Tom Waits would sound like with the rasp and rough edges slicked and smoothed out, as if that bard of the whiskey bottle were a lot less Charles Bukowski and Kurt Weill and a lot more Fats Waller and Allen Ginsberg. Morphine are smoky jazz clubs of the '40s, where dark-suited men and Dior-gowned dames pass notes to the cigarette girl, or the '50s, where angry hipster prophets fog the air with poetry raining down like mustard gas -- but it's got a good beat and you can dance to it. Morphine are film noir, as experienced from a careering shuttle on the Universal Studio Tour. Morphine are fun -- when Sandman drawls 'Yes/Yes/Yes/Yes' on the title track, he evokes Molly Bloom's erotic reverie -- but they're never so emotional that they relinquish control, or their sense of detached irony."

-- Gary Susman, March 17, 1995

"When you're a veteran rocker struggling to make ends meet, the line between cool and pathetic gets tenuous. With his confident, reserved demeanor and his consistently inspired take on jazz- and blues-inflected rock, Sandman -- barfly, scenester, regular -- always managed to stay on the right side of that line. . . .

Sandman still looks the same as he did a decade ago -- tall, laid back, and, well, cool. And his musical tastes haven't changed much either. But with Morphine he's found the perfect vehicle for his hipster persona: a band as casually intense as he is, with a deep, dark sound that's ideally suited to his smoky baritone croon. He's a private person who finds the limelight awkward and uncomfortable. But he's smart enough to know that cool has more to do with what you don't show than with what you do. And Sandman's not showing his hand.

-- Matt Ashare, April 28, 1995

"Morphine are masters of mood, playing with a cinematic richness that evokes Edward Hopper, nighthawks on barstools and in bedrooms -- isolated, static, unfulfilled. Or to be less abstract and hifalutin, if you've seen the film Spanking the Monkey, you know that Morphine's music can be a devastating soundtrack for a young life gone to hell. The simple bass-sax-drums do much to convey claustrophobia and doom, but the most haunting image in Spanking the Monkey comes at the end, when the thwarted spanker walks away from the mess of his life to the mandolin-driven 'In Spite of Me' (compliments of Blood Orange Jimmy Ryan). The lovely, sad song communicates a resilience perfect for the moment."

-- Amy Finch, August 30, 1996

"Talking to Mark Sandman on the phone -- which is the only way I've talked to him -- is like listening to somebody who's half-heartedly negotiating his way around the Final Nod. Soft-spoken doesn't begin to describe it, and the frequent silences can be alarming. There were a few moments there when I thought I'd lost him; but no, he revived and completed his thought. Our conversation was taped, and playing it back for transcription purposes, I turn the volume all the way up. Now he sounds coolly articulate, thoughtfully responsive as I bellow my questions at him like a drunken Shriner. . . .

Meanwhile, back to Like Swimming. I notice that there's a lot of water imagery. On 'Potion': 'Below the ocean/I make my bed down there/I gotta live somewhere/Maybe the graveyard/Maybe I don't care.' On 'Wishing Well,' it's 'I move smooth underwater/I know my way around/I grew up in this town.' There's also significant wetness on 'Empty Box' and, of course, the title song. Although I like these lyrics, and the kind of kicked-back but punchy, dark ambiance they float in, I just can't squeeze a question out of them. So instead I ask what's a tritar.

'It's a name I gave an instrument I've been working on that has one bass string and two guitar strings. I play it with a slide. You can hear it on this album on 'Murder for the Money.' "

-- Richard C. Walls, March 7, 1997

"Sometimes it's all deadpan cool with a wry edge that can make even a large clubful of people feel as if they were in on some sly joke. Other times it's a soulful croon connecting the dots between the swamp and the city, deep rural blues and urbane cocktail jazz, generating a different sort of intimacy. And occasionally it's full of hedonistic bluster. . . . But it's always deep, languid, and a little smoky, the perfect finishing touch to the spare yet robust combination of two-string slide bass, baritone sax, and drums that has become Morphine's ingeniously unique calling card.

-- Matt Ashare

"Best Local Male Vocalist/Best Local Live Show"
-- Phoenix/WFNX Best Music Poll Supplement
May 1998

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