Review Summary: A new studio album 10 years after Mark Sandman died? Cool.
A disc called 'Shade' and a disc called 'Shadows', sat behind artwork of some storm clouds, immediately following an album called The Night
. Do you think they're trying to get at something?
In fairness, though, the night-time is exactly when Morphine are at their best. It's been 10 years since Mark Sandman died on stage of a heart attack, and not a single alternative rock band has stepped up to the plate and claimed this niche as their own; Morphine are still the guys you'll want to be listening to when it's 2 in the morning, you're on your 20th cigarette of the day, and all you can smell is whiskey and self-loathing. "Cure for Pain", "Gone for Good", "The Saddest Song", "I'm Free Now", "The Night", "In Spite of Me", "Candy"; all of them were carefully engineered to meet that one specific emotional situation. When they called themselves 'low rock', 'low' didn't just refer to their low-slung slide bass/baritone sax set-up, but to the way this music is supposed to make you feel.
I guess that At Your Service
had the potential to define that better than any of their other albums; after all, nothing gives rock music unforeseen significance like a little death. And true to form, it gets better the more downbeat it is. "It's Not Like That Anymore" might be about society for the most part, but the way Sandman sings 'everybody had a home/everybody had a job' makes him sound like a man that's just lost everything.
Unexpectedly, though, the material here mostly tends showing off their jazz influences rather than showing off their songwriting. It's an album that stars saxophonist Dana Colley almost as much as it does Sandman, which is a curveball, to say the least. After all, how many singers have ever released their sexiest album 10 years after dying? There's something just a little seedy and dangerous about At Your Service
, something which lends the title - which should only have referred to the live album on the second disc - a double meaning. In a lot of ways, it sounds like an attempt to return to their first album and correct its flaws. Where their best albums Yes
and Cure For Pain
sounded like considering, planned studio creations, these songs sound like they came straight from jam sessions and gigs.
Credit where credit's due, then; At Your Service
isn't even close to what we expected, but it's an undeniable success anyway, taking the blueprint of their worst album and bringing enough intelligence and maturity to it to make it better than anybody could have imagined. For an alum pulled together from previously unreleased recordings, it flows seriously well, too, with barely any weak spots, outside of "Women R Dogs". Yeah, the music here might be classic Morphine, but the lyrics are Sandman's worst ever - 'men are dogs, but like, women like them, so, like, that must mean women are dogs too, innit bruv?' There's more than enough in the way of unexpected treats to make up for that, though - the exotic, string-drenched "Lilah II" is the most subtly unhinged thing the band have ever done.
So what of the disc of live versions and remixes? In truth, the two gigs are both too early to include some of the tracks most fans would like to hear most (although, interestingly, two songs from 1995's Yes
appear in the '93 show while nothing from that year's Cure for Pain
does), and there's no crowd noise, but it's all well-recorded and clear and it does the job perfectly well. You can't say the same for the alternate versions, although they're interesting at least - the production on this version of "Buena" re-imagines it as a track from the debut, while "The Night" puts a buttload of reverb on the vocals to make it seem even more haunting, and adds more saxophone towards the end. You can see what they were trying to do with that one, but it just sounds like they're over-egging the pudding a little.
You probably aren't coming to this album for the alternate versions, though; certainly, I came for the new studio material, and it's pretty damn great. It doesn't just continue their legacy, it expands it, too; the material on the first disc of this album is unlike any of their previous records (well, the good ones, anyway). Could we have realistically asked for anything more?