Listen to this track by three-piece “low-rock” innovators from Boston, Morphine. It’s “Cure For Pain”, the title track to their 1993 album of the same name; Cure For Pain, arguably their strongest statement as a musical unit.
There are many examples of rock music innovation during the 1990s. As I’ve mused elsewhere, I really think this decade was an artist’s decade, with many bands empowered to push the boundaries while signed to major labels in the wake of Nirvana’s achievement of selling loads of records while also hanging onto college radio audiences. And, no other band was doing what Morphine was doing.
Everything about them was unconventional, from the instruments they used, to the way those instruments were played, to the musical references that define their sound. And yet their music doesn’t just appeal to some intellectual notion of originality. It socks you in the gut, too.
I think this comes from groundwork they laid which not too many bands decide upon from the get-go; a cultivated group identity.
I don’t mean this in a crude marketing sort of way. The identity this band is definitely springing from their artistic choices. And “Cure For Pain” is like something of an anthem to that, a song that is ultimately about sensitivity, and about self-medication too in a world where desensitization is necessary. And lyrically speaking, they hit on some pretty universal themes, all about the human experience yet not in a way that is over-earnest or hackneyed
This song is a great example of their noirish indie-rock-jazz that hadn’t been heard in quite this way before or since. The sound of the song supports these themes of inner angst, with singer and two-string slide bassist (not too many of those around!) Mark Sandman’s sonorous baritone duetting with baritone saxophonist Dana Colley’s rumbling countermelodies. That’s why the band referred to their sound as “low-rock” – it’s low. Simple. And that unity of purpose as a band in terms of sound, and in the creation of songs like this one is what comprises their clear identity in a way that few bands have achieved since.
When Mark Sandman died after collapsing on stage in Italy in 1999, the band was no more. It is of a great loss to the world that his life was cut short at a relatively young age, particularly in the light of a talent as deep and wide as Sandman’s. And it’s a shame that the musical alchemy they created is never to be revisited.
For more information about Morphine and what they were able to do as a live band in particular, read this article about Morphine by Greg Olear.
Also, be sure and check out the documentary Cure For Pain, which traces the life of Mark Sandman and Morphine. You can watch the trailer here.