There are some bands that need to be listened to in album-length chunks to be fully appreciated. They have a few outstanding singles, but the total experience of the band can only be gotten over the course of a full album or during a live show. Morphine has always been one of those bands, and their latest effort, "Like Swimming," follows that trend.
Morphine returns with the same lineup they've always boasted, and they show no signs of growing stale. In addition to handling the vocal duties and playing his self-designed two-string slide bass, which forms the bedrock of Morphine's signature sound, Mark Sandman also experiments with keyboards, guitar, and a tritar, another original creation. Billy Conway handles the percussion elements with his usual virtuosity, shifting between jazz and rock styles with a fluency that is unrivalled. Although Dana Colley (known for his ability to play two saxes at once during concerts) can certainly use his sax for more traditional purposes (such as the melody or a solo), he usually sticks to the established Morphine style, using the instrument to complement Conway's percussion. This creates a unique and rock-solid rhythm section, allowing Sandman's slide bass to subtlely slip in and create the melody. Colley is also adept at using his instrument as a counterpart/counterpoint to the bass to forcefully emphasize certain elements.
"Like Swimming" is rumored to have been ready since last October, but negotiations for a new deal held up its release. This is Morphine's first record on the new Dreamworks (you remember, the big mega-entertainment company founded by Steven Spielberg, Jeffery Katzenberg, and David Geffen) label, which is the also the main reason for its delay. While they are still tethered to Rykodisc for this release and their next album (which they supposedly already begun recording), they are already under the Dreamworks umbrella and will be signed exclusively to them two albums from now.
Mark Sandman once again shares production duties with Paul Q. Kolderie, who is a mainstay of the Boston music scene (he has worked with Throwing Muses, Juliana Hatfield, and the Pixies, not to mention Hole, Radiohead, and Dinosaur Jr.) and who has worked with Morphine on their three previous releases. As usual, the sound is clean and unobtrusive, managing to capture the live sound of the band almost exactly. On many songs Sandman's vocals are even burning the edge of the levels, mimicking the feedback and distortion that often accompanies a live show. The drums are crisp and clear without being sharp; the bass and saxophone deep and mesmerizing, creating a silky, quietly menacing tapestry above the percussion. However, on this record Morphine seems more willing to fool around with studio tricks, including the fuzz guitar on "Murder for the Money", the ghostly, machine-like percussion on "Swing It Low", and the weird, disco-inspired keyboard effects on "Early to Bed", which sound like they were sampled off of Tupac's "California Love."
The songs themselves are more or less standard Morphine fare, and although the highlights are not quite as bright as they are on some of their other records, neither are the lows quite as dim. "Like Swimming" starts off with "Lilah", a quiet instrumental that serves to set the tone for the rest of the disc. It then jumps into the core of the record, starting with "Potion", a sharp sarcastic number masked by the disarming swing of a deeply troubled lounge act. "I Know You" is a classic Morphine track, followed by "Early to Bed", an odd, choppy number that I didn't care for much at first but which has grown on me. On "Wishing Well", it seems like Sandman is actually happy about things for once, but you can't tell for sure. He's so fluent in irony and sarcasm that any attempt at sincerity makes you think twice. The heart of the record closes with "Like Swimming", a rolling hypnotic piece that makes you feel like an unconcious body being pushed slowly out to sea by the rolling waves, or a gently waving strand of kelp in the quiet ocean currents.
The record starts to drag a little in the middle. "Murder for the Money" is the most puzzling song on the record. It seems to have been written only so that Sandman could play around with an electric guitar for a little while. "French Fries w/ Pepper" is the weakest track on the album; it would have been better suited to a B-side. "Empty Box" is not a bad song, but there isn't a whole lot that makes it stand out, either.
Things pick up again with "Eleven O'Clock", perhaps their most straightforward rocker ever, with a grinding, insistent beat, and single lyric that is repeated over and over again ("Every night about 11 o'clock I go out"). The record closes out with the deep melancholy of "Hanging on a Curtain" and the spooky whisperings of "Swing It Low".
All in all, this is a very solid Morphine album, not quite as good as "Cure for Pain", which is generally acknowledged to be the group's finest work to date, but certainly not a throwaway. If you already like Morphine, you should definitely pick up this disc. If you have yet to experience their unique sound, this is as good a place as any to start.