Last July, the Boston music scene lost one its most creative and loved members. Mark Sandman died on stage of a heart attack in Italy during a show with his innovative band, Morphine.
Morphine created a dark, dreamy, noir-ish sound out of an unusual trio of saxophone, drums and two-string slide bass. Lead singer and bassist Sandman sang about the fascination and bitterness of love with a deep, sexy-as-hell drawl. Although Sandman was the creative force behind the band as lead singer and songwriter, he was teamed with skillful bandmates. Dana Colley provided soulful, smoky saxes, and Billy Conway always entertained on the drums (think Animal from The Muppet Show).
The band finished its final album just days before starting the European tour that abruptly ended with Sandman’s death. This new album, The Night (DreamWorks), is an excellent example of the band’s talent. The band members experiment with new styles and instruments without altering their aesthetic sound.
The title track sets the stage for The Night with Sandman wooing an unusual object of affection with some vivid, poetic lyrics. It’s too dark to see the landmarks/and I don’t want your good-luck charms/I hope you’re waiting for me/Across your carpet of stars. There’s a feeling that you’re sleepily drifting from consciousness to a dream state, thanks to Sandman’s deep, steady voice, a piano, a somber cello and Colley’s smooth blowing.
Colley’s saxophone is emphatic throughout and is showcased in some shaking up-tempos. On Top Floor, Bottom Buzzer, Colley fuels a fiery flavor as Sandman describes a late-night party with an excess of eclectic music, liquor and women. On Top Floor and many of the songs on The Night, Conway is joined on drums by Jerome Deupree, the band’s original drummer. The interplay of the two drummers adds an energetic boost to Top Floor and So Many Ways, which is also strengthened by funky organs and saucy female backup singers. These ambitious elements add to the classic Morphine sound perfected on earlier, equally fine albums. But Sandman goes further.
Rope of Fire is a peculiar, foreign-sounding track. Colley is joined by a cello, viola, bowed bass and a Middle-Eastern sound to create a surreal, slightly menacing undercurrent for Sandman’s dreamscape. Here, Mark recounts the underworld of a film noir nightmare, where he and a lover try to escape from movie-like dangers. The song has the eerie logic of a dream, full of murky motives and menace at every turn. And strangely, the song is an affirmation of love in a twisted world.
This tone appears again like a recurring dream in Take Me with You, a sadly fitting finale for Sandman and The Night. Sandman, the strings and the saxophones all speak in unison, pleading take me with you with you go now/Don’t leave me alone/I can’t live without you. Sandman draws a dramatic and emotional edge in sadness and in strength.
So Sandman leaves behind just five albums. The Night, one of poetic finality, is a tragic remembrance of a man whose life was his music. It’s a chilling reminder of what might have evolved from this new direction that Morphine had taken with The Night. The surviving members of Morphine and other Boston musicians have formed Orchestra Morphine, which will tour in support of the new album. The concerts will benefit The Mark Sandman Music Education Fund, which seeks new ways to introduce children to the world of music.
Orchestra Morphine plays The Black Cat in D.C. Thursday, March 2, and Friday, March 3.