Hard as it is to describe the music of Morphine, "Like Swimming," the title of the band's last full-length album, serves as an accurate enough description of the idiosyncratic trio from Boston. But nothing comes close to the live experience, which finally can be indulged when Morphine makes its local debut this weekend. The closeness of Sapphire Supper Club provides a suitable setting for singer Mark Sandman to lazily drop his oddball lyrics about sex, death and food, sometimes sung through distortion pedals, over dark textures that only get murkier.
Morphine's freaky, seductive sound isn't the sole quality that has attracted loyal addicts -- first drugged by their debut, 1992's "Good," and even more enchanted with 1993's "Cure for Pain." "Yes," released in 1995, landed on multiple critics' top-10 lists that year, went No. 1 on college radio and swept the Boston Music Awards. Morphine also has been heard on various soundtracks, including "Spanking the Monkey" and "Beautiful Girls," and on television's "Homicide."
Since 1997's "Like Swimming," the band has released several Japanese imports, and coming soon is a Morphine track on "The Mod Squad" movie soundtrack. The song "You're an Artist" was a special collaboration between Sandman and Chris Ballew, of the no-longer Presidents of the United States of America.
Sandman uses a metal slide to coax deep notes out of his two-string electric bass, which often sounds like a distorted lead guitar. He occasionally switches to playing the "tritar," a three-string instrument of his own devising. Dana Colley, meanwhile, digs around the lower register of his baritone, tenor and bass saxophones. Drummer Billy Conway, Sandman's mate from their old punk-blues band Treat Her Right, holds it all together with rock and funk rhythms that are tight, but loose enough to allow the others plenty of space.
Dark atmospherics color Morphine's smoky, late-night universe. "Like Swimming" offers a chain of events out of pulp fiction. "Murder for the Money," all dirty guitars and drum thwack, might be about a hired hit or simply an awful job. The sultry "Hanging on a Curtain" is all sex, maybe of the forbidden kind.
Obviously shiny, happy people live somewhere else.
"I've written some happy, upbeat songs, but we crushed them," Sandman says from his home in Cambridge, Mass., "and we stashed them in the closet. I think there's a lot of positivity within the lyrics, seriously, and some humor here and there. Yeah, there are some songs that are dark," he admits. "I can live with that."
Other bands have been known to dive deep, sliding into the audio muck and catching listeners with the undertow. But no one does it quite like Morphine.
"It's hard to say why we do that," Sandman says. "We're not the lowest band in the world. It's baritone, really, not bass. Somehow what we're doing creates an effect. It's low, but you can still hear what's going on at the same time."
Morphine in some respects is the product of an accidental conception. During the early '90s Sandman was involved in at least six bands, all of which found the time and space to play on the Boston area's fertile college-music scene.
"It was still obviously the kind of music that we had always played, but just with different instruments," he says. "The sax was kind of playing the role of the guitar, and Dana is probably more influenced by guitar players than sax players, in some ways. ... We just started getting a following with it."