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Class ?

Main Category: Smart Pop
Also applicable: Jazz Rock, Roots Rock
Starting Period: From Grunge To The Present Day
Also active in: --------



Disclaimer: this page is not written from the point of view of a Morphine fanatic and is not generally intended for narrow-perspective Morphine fanatics. If you are deeply offended by criticism, non-worshipping approach to your favourite artist, or opinions that do not match your own, do not read any further. If you are not, please consult the guidelines for sending your comments before doing so. For information on reviewing principles, please see the introduction. For specific non-comment-related questions, consult the message board.

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GOOD ****

Year Of Release: 1992

This is, in a large part, beautiful, and the rating could be much higher were it a bit longer and a bit less stuck in the same groove (and, most importantly, had the band not released several records that were even better). The funny thing is how incredibly accessible this stuff is. Hey, in fact, several of the songs on here could quite easily be commercial hits on the soft-rock or roots-rock circuit; all it'd take would be a change of the arrangement. After all, don't forget that Mark Sandman's past was barroom boogie or something like that.

However, it's the arrangements that matter, ultimately. It's amazing that the band arrives at a more or less unique sound of their own without actually doing anything - in the friggin' Nineties at that. All it requires is one thing: dump the guitar. With just a solid, steady rhythm section and a versatile sax player, Good is minimalistic and sparse, but that's what makes it intriguing and charming. The formula looks simple, but nobody ever used it before, unless you count Van Der Graaf Generator or somebody like that (VDGG did have at least an extra keyboard player, though). Or, of course, unless you count various jazz trios, and some of the songs on Morphine's debut are actually plain jazz instead of rock; but others are deeply rooted in classic Fifties' boogie, while still others show that Morphine did pay at least some attention to the alternative scene of the times.

Good is also, despite the title, a pretty dark album, although it never shoves its darkness in your face. The atmosphere is moderate throughout - meaning life more or less sucks, but you gotta live with that instead of cutting your veins on the spot or "pouring your tortured soul out" in a thunderous guitar solo. A bit emotionally similar to Nick Drake, I'd say, even if textur-ally the two couldn't be more apart. This really helps the music to get through, actually; I'm pretty surprised Morphine never hit the big time with this album, as it's bound to not offend anybody's musical tastes, as "low" or "high" as those could be.

The very best thing, though, is that the melodies are good. Vocal melodies, basslines, sax riffs - many, if not most, of them constructed with care and passion. It's not just unstructured jazzy noodling, not just a bunch of disconnected three-minute grooves. It's real songs, with real staying power and real memorability. Granted, a few of the melodies are kinda generic - some use the basic 12-bar structure, some don't amount above average boogie, but if you're smart enough to "update" average boogie with a unique atmosphere, I say go for it, and they do. Oh, and, as far as musical similarities go, I'd say the closest analogy to these songs can be found in those rare "mainstream-like" jazzy numbers Can used to do in the Mooney period, like 'She Brings The Rain'.

Ha! Now that I think about it, the most Can-like song on here is called 'You Look Like Rain'. Coincidence? Most probably so, but I wouldn't want you to believe it anyway. To hell with coincidences, they make our life more boring. Instead, just believe me when I say 'You Look Like Rain' is a terrific number where Sandman sounds like a cross between an old blues guy and... uhm... another old blues guy. If you like relaxing gloomy jazz pop, it's the song for you. Same goes for the slow, dirgey sound of 'I Know You' and a couple others.

But then there's also some stuff which is more upbeat. The title track, for instance, which begins with the band slowly stepping in one-by-one (of particular note is Jerome Deupree's unbelievably tasteful light jazzy drumming), is a quirky little shuffle with grimey sexual overtones (well, I guess they're sexual overtones), just one more of those better kinds of songs where you feel that some important part of the message is concealed from you when in reality maybe it's not, but you're still left with a boost to your own intelligence in the end. 'Have A Lucky Day' actually rocks pretty damn hard for a song which, on the surface, doesn't rock at all - but the sax-and-drums interplay certainly rocks my personal boat in a BIG BIG BIG way. 'Players win and winners play - have a lucky day', a chorus you'll never forget unless you happen to miss it because they're playing so quietly. So listen, goddammit, or the only song you'll ever remember will be 'You Speak My Language', a fascinating - and funny in a bleak way - tale of alienation. This one's a faster, and mildly heavier, rocker, in which Sandman actually stoops to screaming parts of the chorus - wow, imagine that for an "alternative rocker", really.

Oh wait, I forgot, there's one more fast boogie-influenced rocker, 'Test Tube/Shoot'm Down', which is just as good. Sincere, rocking, energetic, and all, and all of this with nary a guitar tingle in sight (even if the saxes are double-tracked). I'll shut up right here because it's pretty hard to describe melodies that don't differ from each other except for, you know, the actual chord sequences, but to cut a long story short, there's not one misfire on the album - as far as the formula goes, any effort made within it is worth a reward. Just a bit too samey for my tastes, but then again, I didn't use it against the Ramones, now did I?



Year Of Release: 1993

There's a big difference between skill and talent. If you're skilful enough, you can't really make a bad record by definition, unless you're just too lazy. But only if you're talented will you ever be able to make a good record with such a limited amount of tricks as used by Morphine on their albums. No, it don't take much skill to make their songs - sure, you have to play your bass and your sax really well, but you don't even have to play your guitar! You don't even have to play your piano! And I'm not even mentioning the musical saw or the Jew harp or the yangqin.

'Dawna' serves as a moody intro to the album, and the grimly titled 'Miles Davis' Funeral' is the moody outro. In between, there are ten very good songs. Very solid melodies, very heartfelt atmospheres, and above all, a certain lightness and self-assuredness of approach so that nothing sounds "artificial". You know how you can occasionally listen to a much-revered band like, say, The Jam, and wonder to yourself, 'Hey! On the surface that sounds like a great song, but there's just somethin' that doesn't seem right! It's not living enough for me! In fact, it might even be grating on me!' Well, maybe you don't feel that way about The Jam, but I often do. I also often feel that way about David Bowie. I never feel that way about Morphine.

Which, to me personally, proves that Morphine are just an honest and sensitive band delivering straight from the heart. Or maybe not. But whatever be the case, you can't just dismiss 'Buena' as a spooky-sounding piece of nothing. Dig that cool slide bass intro, at least! Dig how from the very first second of the song, Mark Sandman gives you a hint about how the song is definitely going to explode in the chorus, but he never really shows how until the very last moment - when the chorus really explodes in a series of short rattling bursts ('...introduce you to the buena, buena, buena, good good good!'). And the song is incredibly funky, too, without a single guitar in sight.

Cute little sax riffs are placed at all key points of the album here, so that you'll never get enough time to get bored. 'All Wrong', for instance, has one of these, and just one song later, 'A Head With Wings' got another one, and so on. As you can guess, they're not exactly improving in the diversity department, but when you can keep the quality straight, that's not a very big problem. And there can be no more quality to a Morphine song than what is contained inside 'A Head With Wings' or 'All Wrong'! Not in a million years! But perhaps the best illustration of Morphine's possibilities is 'Thursday', which I could only describe as "sax-driven grunge" - and indeed, there's a lot in common between Morphine's sound of the period and the classic grunge sound, or, rather, the classic grunge sound values. These guys are just as bleak, depressed, cynical, and grumpy - only they don't yell about it, they kinda... uhm... speak about it quietly.

There's a couple optimistic numbers on the record, though, most notably the title track - partially based on major chords, and with an almost British Invasion-like chorus melody, with Sandman intoning 'someday... there'll be a cure for pain!' as cheerfully as he's theoretically capable of. (Granted, the second line is 'that'll be the day I throw my drugs away', which isn't exactly hinting at a particularly cheerful situation today, but that's the great capacity of the human being - to be able to rip things out of context and distort their meanings with the only aim of having more things to mention in one's review).

And speaking of mentioning useless things - did I yet mention that Morphine are pretty good at making beautiful ballads? 'Candy' is one of those, with a little nod to Lou Reed, I'd say (and not just because of the title), and with a totally breathtaking resolution of the chorus - when the naggin' saxophone miraculously disappears and Sandman almost sadly concludes 'Candy says she wants me with her down in Candyland', it's one of the most deeply emotional moments in the entire Morphine catalog. I don't understand why this song wasn't a hit. Give it an MTV coating (video, I mean - certainly not the nauseating musical overproduction), and you have a potential song-for-the-ages - I'm pretty sure many people would be able to empathize here.

Once again, the album is almost ridiculously brief (what is thirty-six minutes in an age when sixty-to-seventy minute long albums were becoming the norm?), but it really needn't be any longer - add just a couple more songs in the same vein and the monotonousness will start getting to you. These guys simply know when to start and when to stop. They have a small point to make here, but they make it, and they make it in a near-perfect way.


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