The good news is, adjectives used by critics and fans to describe Morphine on their first three albums -- words like "seductive," "hypnotic" and "sexy" -- still apply. The band's latest release serves up steamy mood music that could easily set the stage for a heated make-out session. The bad news is, this formula is getting really tired. While the band's earlier albums gathered momentum, each one sounding bolder and sexier than the last, "Like Swimming" makes you wish the band could mold their sound into new forms -- and for just one song, kick their noir habit.
The guitarless Boston trio can still glide through pared-down arrangements with simplicity and smoky grace. Mark Sandman's sultry croon and two-string bass rifts, Dana Colley's aching baritone sax and Billy Conway's potent drumming create sounds that waft and stir. If only Morphine's lyrics could live up to the music's implied lust. Unfortunately, Sandman doesn't pine, he reasons. "Give me an invitation and I'll be there/Unless of course I have to be somewhere," he sings on "I know you." And on "Early to Bed," he makes this deft observation: "Early to bed/And early to rise/Makes a man or woman/Miss out on the night life."
The album's unlikely first single, "Murder for the Money," seems terribly out of place as the upbeat centerpiece of an otherwise low-lying album. Although Sandman buoys the song with the "tritar," an instrument he invented (part bass, part guitar, played with a slide) the innovation isn't enough to make the song sound like any more than a cop show theme song. The tritar is used again on the uninspired "Eleven O'clock," which, with its endlessly droning chorus ("every night around eleven o'clock"), is downright unbearable.
The album is not all a loss. At moments, Sandman's brooding vocals can be intoxicating. He gets right to the point on "Hanging on a Curtain": "Let me put my hands inside your clothes." And on the sensuous modern spiritual "Swing Low," "I've got buttons bursting everywhere/I've got grapes swinging from the vine." On the surprisingly sexy "French Fries with Pepper," Sandman is able to make greasy fast food sound like a savory aphrodisiac.
So don't judge the band on this album alone. If you've never listened to Morphine, check out their earlier releases on Rykodisc -- the plaintive "Good," the reflective, witty and infinitely listenable "Cure for Pain" or the funky, smooth "Yes" -- all of which sizzle with innuendo and are more carefully arranged than the haphazard "Like Swimming." Though the earlier albums were derivative of one another, the band seemed to stretch, moan and start fresh with each song. But now Morphine needs to figure out something new to do, especially now that the novelty of being a rock band without a guitar has worn off.