Morphine Widen Sound On Final Album With Guitar, Organ, Strings

The Night was finished weeks before frontman Mark Sandman's fatal heart attack.

Late Morphine frontman Mark Sandman didn't know his band's new album, The Night, would be his last, but his friends say he worked hard for three years trying to make it his best.

"The pressure he was going through to do the best work was enormous. He was not a man who was satisfied with anything," Dana Colley, Morphine's saxophonist, said of Sandman, who died at age 46 in July, weeks after completing the new album.

The Night, released Tuesday (Feb. 1), expands Morphine's arrangements beyond the spare bass/sax/drums sound that dominated their past work. It introduces guitars, organs, strings and female backing vocals.

"I would say it's the record they worked the hardest and longest on, and that shows in the development and orchestration of the songs," the band's manager, Deb Klein, said on Tuesday.

Sandman turned in the completed album in June, less than a month before suffering a fatal heart attack during a show in Italy. Despite what friends describe as a perfectionist nature, Sandman was pleased with what his band had created.

"He was definitely happy," Klein said. "It was like he had heard what was in his head — he finally achieved what he was conceptualizing."

Sandman, Colley and drummer Billy Conway, along with guest musicians including John Medeski of the groove-jazz trio Medeski Martin & Wood, spent the long recording process aiming to broaden the band's distinctive sound while maintaining its essence.

Partly as a result, The Night came together gradually, in sharp contrast to Morphine's acclaimed Cure for Pain (1993), which was recorded in a matter of weeks.

A Gradual, Casual Creation

The album's loping, jazzy title track (RealAudio excerpt), for instance, emerged as the band casually jammed in the studio over a chord progression Sandman wrote.

"[Sandman] pulled out a lot of old charts. We started playing chords off this one chart and immediately gravitated toward this great melody. ... We borrowed ideas from other riffs and jams we had and kind of combined it," Colley said.

"You're the bedtime story/ The one that keeps the curtains closed/ And I hope you're waiting for me/ 'Cause I can't make it on my own," Sandman sings, almost crooning, on the finished track.

Sandman's signature lyrical wit appears throughout the album. "The damage is done/ Cat's out of the bag and looking for a sofa to scratch," he sings on the breakbeat-driven track "So Many Ways." The song also features a female R&B chorus singing the refrain "So many ways to get a lift/ So many ways to get your head unzipped."

On that song and others on the album, Sandman pushes his baritone voice slightly higher than its accustomed range, a technique that makes it resemble that of another witty singer/songwriter, Elvis Costello.

Optimistic Turn

Though Morphine's sound has always been dark — Sandman described it as "beat noir" — a note of optimism creeps through much of The Night.

On the surreal "Top Floor, Bottom Buzzer" (RealAudio excerpt), Colley plays a riff that sounds like a one-man version of a Stax-Volt horn section, while Sandman describes a liquor-soaked house party.

"By the time Priscilla put the Al Green on/ The bottle was gone," Sandman sings, as girl-group backing vocalists join him for the chorus.

For Sandman's former bandmates, touring behind the album with seven additional musicians under the name Orchestra Morphine, the release of The Night is unavoidably bittersweet.

"It's definitely a two-sided coin there — any kind of sense of accomplishment is muted by the fact that the loss is still there," Colley said. "That's really hard."

Laurie Gail, music director for Boston alternative-rock station WFNX-FM, said Sandman would've been pleased that his bandmates are carrying on the Morphine name.

"It's kind of sad, but at the same time, I think they want to continue and celebrate Mark's life. That's exactly what he would want," she said.

Orchestra Morphine will begin a tour Friday in Northampton, Mass. The outing will end on March 8 in New York, but the group is planning a more extensive trek in May, Klein said.

Morphine's most recent studio album was 1997's Like Swimming, which included the radio hit "Early to Bed."

(Staff Writer Christopher O'Connor contributed to this report.)