Unfairly Neglected marks an intermittent series of posts celebrating or even simply reminding us of bands or artists that have, despite positive critical reception and exposure, somehow fallen through the cracks.
Morphine were key part of the alternative 90s rock scene in the US. They described their sound as ‘low rock’, and a quick listen marks this act of hubris as justified, since their sound was unique. This was the consequence of a distinctive line-up. Mark Sandman, their chief songwriter, played a two string slide bass; Dana Colley played baritone saxophone; and Billy Conway (and occasionally Jerome Deupree) played drums. There were no guitars. This, in the midst of the primacy of grunge, is remarkable in itself, but Colley’s use of the saxophone as a guitar surrogate, occupying the same space that a guitar would, gives the music a jazzy-bluesy feel not found in their contemporaries.
Their story is, given the nature of these posts, exceptionally tragic. Signed to a tiny local label before being picked up major indie, Ryko in 1992, who re-released their debut, Good. Cure for Pain followed in ’93, which is typically regarded as their high-water mark. Yes, followed in ’95, before they signed to major label Dreamworks. 1997 brought Like Swimming. Before their final album, The Night, was finished and mastered, Sandman died of a heart attack mid-gig in Palestrino, Italy. Colley recalled, “I look over to my right, and I just see him, his knees buckle. He fell down, he fell back, with his bass on, and the whole place just came to a complete hush.” To add insult to injury, Dreamworks, who saw Sandman as their chief asset, immediately dropped the band and refused to do publicity for the album. Legal wrangling kept the band from raising their profile and has held them back from receiving the sort of ongoing critical reputation the band deserved. They disappeared from view.
Aside from the personal tragedy the band must have felt, this is a tragedy from a musical perspective. Morphine occupied a space between the more traditional alt-rock artists of the 90s and more expansive or reflective artists such as Nick Cave or Mark Kozalek’s Red House Painters. Similarities can also be drawn to Belgian alt-rockers, Deus, or even The Czars. While Sandman’s bass has a bluesy growl, that at times resembles a double bass, Colley’s baritone sax both fulfils the typical riff-duties and allows for the occasional minor solo. That said, don’t be expecting Baker Street style smooth jazz saxophony, Colley keeps things ‘low’. Lyrically, Sandman maintains a smart, laid back, disinterested tone. Morphine were a band that could rock, but also hold a tighter bar-room intimacy. They deserve more attention.