25 May 2016

Declan's Hipster Hovel #6 | Morphine - Good

DAMN, DECLAN AT IT AGAIN WITH THE JAZZ.

Ahem. Sorry. Consider my reference to that crap meme penance for the fact that once more, I’m bringing you a jazz-tinged record, in this case Boston-based jazz-rock band Morphine’s 1992 first effort Good. But this is one of those albums that reviews itself. It’s good. Say that slowly, seductively; I’m just damning with faint praise. This album is gooooood.

It really is. Headed by frontman Mark Sandman (who unfortunately died of a heart attack on-stage in 1999), this album opens with a throbbing, pulsating (two string!) bass-riff before leading into the punishingly jutting vocals; “you’re good/good, good good” and “something tells me/something tells me/something tells me you can read my mind”, and a cheeky little saxophone accompaniment after that. It’s pretty basic stuff but it sets the tone very well, which is good, because this album is built around buckets of tone; it’s entirely mood based, pretty much, and it’s a good mood, a little bit like sinking into a comfy chair, while a harem of scantily clad people of whatever gender you prefer sultrily skulk and sulk around you. Smoky, steamy, illicit, but… intoxicating, and overwhelming.

What’s also most commendable about this little band is that they manage to achieve all of this without any guitar other than that punishing, orgasmic bass. This is displayed on track three Claire, a swift little ballad to the eponymous lover, which is where the album really hits its stride; the way Sandman moans “I still remember seeing you sleep/all twisted up in the sheets” makes me go all gooey in the knees.

I think the nearest comparison point is Gretschen Hofner, who I’m sure you all remember from my previous Hipster Hovel instalments. But where that band was ready and raring to go, all forward leaps and pounding fast drums, this album is almost like the dark side to that (already dark? Idk) moon, a set of songs about dirty emotions and dirty souls, where everyone is a slave to their ids and everyone is as corrupt as everyone else. They do what I love, and what I think all good bands should do; they use their instruments to create a unique sound, and then explore every single variation of that sound. None of the cuts on here outstay their welcome (or exceed the four-minute mark). Sandman, the sax player Dana Colley, and the percussionists Jerome Deupree and Billy Conway all sound tight as a drum. These are a group who know each other and are working together to deliver their sound; it’s joyous.

From unapologetic banger You Speak My Language, which is endlessly fun, through to Do Not Go Quietly Unto Your Grave, which is a manifesto for debauchery framed as an old geezer imparting some sage wisdom to a braying crowd of youngsters, in a way Dylan Thomas would wholeheartedly endorse; “did everything wrong but I never got caught/so of course I would do it all over again”, then Test Tube Baby/Shoot’m Down, which rattles with a tense drumbeat, is joined by a crooning sax, and culminates in a rattled-off list consumptions methods “I have a pinch of this/I have a taste of that/I have a glass of this/I have a jug of that”, before switching to the perspective of the narc chasing him, and then finally the phenomenal album closer “I Know You Pt.1 and 2”, which murkily meanders, assaults you with punching sax hits, and… Just moves. Time has turned to mud around me and my fingers are heavy. Moody.

I can’t really get a handle on how “hipsterish” these guys are, in all honestly. As is often the case with dead musicians, Sandman has something of a cult status, and several prominent bass players (Les Claypool being one of them) have sung his praises in some form. But these guys stand apart from, say, Joy Division, because where Joy Division were innovative in a way where millions wanted to copy them, nobody has really copied this sound, because it’s already owned.

I’m not going to assign a flippant hipster rating to this thing because, well, it would seem a little bit disrespectful. Look up Mark Sandman instead; he was a very interesting figure, and it’s clear that his albums are a monument of sorts to his life. His death was untimely, but at least we were allowed a fair taste of all he had to deliver. This is a marvellous record. Their later albums got a bit better produced, a bit heavier, but this, for all its roughness, is my favourite.


Words: Declan Cochran