Out There

The Night
(Rykodisc/DreamWorks Records)

Believe this: The fact that Morphine singer-bassist Mark Sandman suffered a fatal heart attack on stage last summer in Italy is as important to any review of The Night as the 11 songs on the album. You can't libel the dead, but just try finding a writer willing to give it a try. Fortunately, very little revisionist history needs to be written in this case, unless someone feels the need to label The Night a master work. The album is perhaps the best Morphine disc of the five the group released (1995's Yes runs a close second, if only because it includes "Super Sex"). However, it's only by a matter of degrees, the happy accident of three men honing a formula over a decade of playing together. Put simply, if you didn't like Morphine before, you won't now either. Very little of The Night is new, only old done better.

The band's established formula is still in full effect on The Night: Sandman's coffee-and-smokes voice smothering and covering Dana Colley's buzzing, bleating saxophone, while drummer Billy Conway plays just enough to pick up a paycheck, laying down bare-bones kick-snare beats. "Top Floor, Bottom Buzzer" is the prototypical Morphine song, even with John Medeski's organ flourishes near the end -- all back-alley groove and barfly bent. And "A Good Woman Is Hard to Find" highlights the band's low-end theory even better, letting only a few notes escape into treble territory. Though that's where Morphine is at its best, the band occasionally tries to dig its way out of the rut, leading to songs such as "Rope on Fire," which is an unholy alliance of Chris Isaak, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant's Unledded, and the kind of soft-core porn that turns up on Cinemax on Friday nights. In a word: unfortunate.

But Morphine doesn't stray too far from its comfort zone. At its heart, and a part of the anatomy farther south, The Night (like all Morphine albums) is about women -- lots of women. Sandman may believe "A Good Woman Is Hard to Find," but that doesn't keep him from looking. Women are everywhere on The Night: on his fingertips and the tip of his tongue on "I'm Yours, You're Mine," waking up next to him on "The Way We Met." He tells Lilah she's "The Night," and "a bedtime story that keeps the curtains closed." He picks up Priscilla, Jane, and Mary Ellen for a party on the "Top Floor, Bottom Buzzer." He wants Martha Lee to "wish upon this melody and come to me" on "Like a Mirror," and remembers "all the shy Dianes" counting the "Slow Numbers." Half of the album finds Sandman chasing a girl into the night; the other half, he's trying to keep her there in the morning. If he's lucky, Sandman is now in a place where the night never ends.

Zac Crain


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