Mark Sandman, Always Going Against the Grain
By Pamela Murray Winters
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, December 1, 2004; Page C05
Mark Sandman's work with swamp-rockers Treat Her Right and dark-toned "low rock" band Morphine continues to gain accolades and listeners five years after he collapsed and died of a heart attack onstage in Rome. The 2-CD-plus-DVD set "Sandbox," compiled by Sandman's Morphine bandmates Billy Conway and Dana Colley, explores the edges of his body of work.
Sandman's voice is not dissimilar to Jim Morrison's at its low end, but he didn't wield it in service of apocalyptic visions or messianic pronouncements. His songs could be dark: Witness "Middle East," which layers a truly disturbing narrative of a hijacking over some fairly groovy drums and bass -- it's "Rock the Casbah" by pale moonlight, exciting and nightmarish at once.
Sometimes the horn-heavy, only mildly melodic sound works -- what a great stretch it is, melding saxophone and a swelling beat with folky mandolin and a delicate lyric on "Patience" -- but "Sandbox" tends to engage the mind rather than the spirit. Shining through the sometimes grating experimentation is Sandman's humor.
The countryish "Hotel Room" is a wonderful fusion of jail song and road song, comparing its setting to a prison "with a wake-up call and an in-house laundry." "Mona's Sister's" cheeky exploration of a ménage a trois is carried almost entirely by the guitars and harmonica that smirk and blurt from behind its banal lyrics: "She made me eggs, she made me sausage/In the end she made me coffee." And the lovely "Snow" offers a lazy-tempoed view of Sandman's home town, Boston: "First it snowed/Then it snowed/Then it snowed and it snowed and it snowed and it snowed and it snowed/Then it rained."
Some of the misses are here to shed light on the hits. The affectionate throwaway "Riley the Dog" -- featuring canine howls -- is followed by "Some Other Dog," a jazz-strutting metaphor about a sort of sexual heeling.
To say that "Sandbox" sounds like what it is -- a scrapbook pasted together by the artist's friends -- doesn't diminish its value, but it should serve as a warning that the box set is no introduction to this gifted and unusual artist. For that, check out Morphine's 2000 masterpiece "The Night" -- an album so transcendently original that you'll want to dig around in "Sandbox" for more treasures.