Like Swimming, Morphine's fourth full-length and their first
release as part of their multi-album deal with super-label Dreamworks,
shows the band at their best. While Yes, their last studio-effort,
had its wonderful moments and memorable singles, the album was largely
recorded while the band was touring and attempting to build on the
momentum they had established with their breakthrough disc, Cure for
Pain. A song here, a song there -- the album was recorded at different
times, on the run, whenever there was a stray moment.
And while Yes sounds far from fragmented, it doesn't sound fully
realized as an album. Like Swimming, Morphine's long
delayed follow-up, contains that exact distinct quality: in addition to
being a collection of great songs, Like Swimming, when listened to
all the way through, is a great album, coalescing around both Morphine's
signature guitar-less sound and themes of bleak hope, the promise of life
in the face of reality, and a "fuck-'em-all and let's have a good time
Morphine, for those who still don't know, is centered around bassist, lead
singer, and main-writer Mark Sandman. (Although, displaying his
never-ending penchant for making new instruments to suit his particular
musical sensibility, Sandman plays a Tritar--pronounced tr-EYE-tar--on
Like Swimming, an instrument made up of two-guitar strings and one
bass-string.) His smooth-as-sandpaper baritone, his sardonic causticity,
and his esoteric and intellectual nature pervade Morphine's music.
Not that the other two-thirds of Morphine don't play a decisive role as
well. Dana Colley, the band's baritone saxist (who sometimes, Rashaan
Roland Kirk style, blows on two horns at once) is, being the only true
melodic instrumentationalist, saddled with his share of responsibility in
crafting the Morphine style, and his riff-heavy, gin joint-meets-Carnegie
Hall lines typify Morphine as much as anything. And Billy Conway, who
formerly labored with Sandman in the Boston-based band Treat Her Right,
has learned how to accompany this slightly unconventional front-line due
like on drums like no-one else can.
Like Swimming begins, after a brief introduction, with "Potion," a
song that quickly sets the tone for what's to come. "Give me a potion to
make me love you," Sandman growls after Colley comes in with both arms
swinging with a riff that'll stick in your mind for days to come, like it
or not. This sense - of not caring about the way in which things work out,
as long as they do - is the essence of Like Swimming. "Why can't
love be," Sandman has a blind-man moaning later in the song, "Why can't
love be blind?" Why, indeed? And if it's not, can't we at least do
something about it.
"I Know You (Pt. III) (no, there are no parts one and two) continues in
this vein, with Sandman again reaching out for elusive human contact with
Colley swinging like mad the whole time in the background. There are some
new elements for Morphine on Like Swimming - the sure-fire single
"Early to Bed" contains a synth-line that sounds as if, isolated, it could
come out of a Prince song. But the album (a teensy-weensy bit short at
just under 40 minutes) remains satisfyingly characteristic of Morphine
through-and-throughonly more so, in some cases.
"Early to Bed," "Like Swimming," and "French Fries w/Pepper" all seem
slated to become hits, and interestingly, they convey more of a
party-atmosphere than the band has on a whole. "Early to Bed" is a
celebration of night-life, while "French Fries w/Pepper" is a
so-let's-sit-back-and-have-a-brewsky ditty. Only the title-song, seemingly
innocent in its lyrics, is made slightly more Morphine-esque scary by
Sandman's frightening, hushed, lyrics. And it's backed by other distinctly
dark-toned tunes such as the manipulative lament of "Empty Box" or the
deliciously malevolent "Murder for the Money."
A couple of months ago, when drummer Conway was MIA due to an accident
with an errant snowmobiler, Sandman, Colley, and some buddies from
Boston's jazzy Either/Orchestra played a gig billed as the Hypnosonics,
performing many of the songs that were to appear on Like Swimming.
At the time, I thought Hypnosonics was an avenue for Sandman's and
Colley's lighter work, or else that Morphine had turned away from their
noir-based past. I was wrong on both counts; it just no-one can make
Morphine songs sound as devilishly satisfying as Morphine, even a band
with Sandman on guitar and Colley on sax.
And make no mistake about it--Like Swimming is devilishly
satisfying. Sounding as complete and essential as Cure for Pain and
containing some of the kick-ass riffs that were scattered through-out
Yes, Like Swimming is Morphine's best album yet.