By Dave Herrera
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When Morphine frontman Mark Sandman died of a heart attack on stage in 1999, he left behind friends, loved ones and an exceptional body of musical work. He also left behind a curious batch of crudely rendered cartoons drawn on everything from cocktail napkins and bowling score sheets to fancy parchment.
Named Twinemen, Sandman's often ink-and-watercolored cartoon strips documented the adventures of scraggly, shape-shifting characters whose torsos resembled loosely wound balls of string. Sporting anywhere from one to three heads at a time, Twinemen could be found unwinding at a piano in one panel, then resting on a psychiatrist's couch a few frames later, addled by multiple personalities and spinning yarn after yarn with distinct, deadpan humor.
"It really was a pastime -- a comic reflection of being in a band or a group of people or however your relationships get all bound together, so to speak," says drummer Billy Conway of his late pal's penchant for doodling. "Some of them were panels with a storyline and went on for a ways, and some were just a panel with a title. We'd head off to our hotel rooms at night, and the next day on the bus or whatever, he'd say, 'Check this one out.' And we'd all have a laugh. We're hoping that somebody will take the time and put together a little book, 'cause a lot of the strips are really worth seeing. They're so much fun."
Saxophonist Dana Colley chuckles when he recalls the ultimate downfall of Twinemen: "They hit the top, get their hit number-one single, and from there on in, it's basically a life of debauchery that leads them down a slippery slope to the point where they wind up in jail," he says. "And, of course, then they become rehabilitated."
"They decided they needed therapy," Conway adds. "And the therapist was a guy with the scissors. He snips them apart, but they decide they're not happy that way, either, so they go back to playing music."
Thankfully, the flesh-and-blood members of Twinemen, the band, also decided to redirect their attention toward tuneful ventures. Last year, Conway and Colley recruited veteran singer Laurie Sargent (Conway's paramour) into the unlikely new project, following her involvement in the success of Orchestra Morphine. In 2000, that elaborate nine-piece ensemble paid tribute to Sandman through an international tour that concluded with a festival in Palestrina, Italy, the site where the famed singer died one year earlier. (Two songs into the set, Sandman told a joke in Italian, then collapsed.)
Orchestra Morphine expanded upon its namesake's minimal, subwoofer-pummeling sound -- a minimally instrumented affair that utilized two-string slide bass, baritone sax, imaginative drumming and Sandman's distinctively deep voice. At three times the original's size, Orchestra Morphine naturally filled up the formerly wide-open spaces. Piano, strings, brass and additional percussive and vocal arrangements helped to promote Morphine's fifth and most lush-sounding full-length, The Night.
"We didn't want to go out and try to create the trio thing," Conway says. "We wanted to make a big sound, you know. It was really Dana and I, surrounding ourselves with our friends to go out and play Mark's music. Almost everybody in the band had been involved with all of us through the years, either playing on records or living next door. We didn't really know what we were putting together. Laurie just offered to sing the parts while we rehearsed. All of a sudden, it seemed interesting to us to hear some of the songs being sung by a woman. Laurie had a solo record going, and we were generating material for that record, and some of it just didn't sound like it belonged on it. So, like kids in a sandbox, we put that down and started something else."
But rather than reconfigure the past glories of Morphine, Twinemen constructed castles from thin air for its self-titled debut. Released on a new homespun label, HI-N-DRY, named after their recording space in downtown Cambridge, Massachussetts, the fluid and sprawling affair combines warm tones, gently swaying melodies, dark sentiments and a cool intensity.
"When we wrote the record, there weren't songs," says Conway. "We created them in the studio. We just sort of let it come out the way it did. It was really different recording when you weren't trying to get on tape something you already had in your head. It's a very different, open-ended process. The only rule we gave ourselves was, 'Let's just try and make music that's really hard to describe.' Whether we're succeeding or failing, we seem to be getting that response."
Twinemen's sultry groove suggests jazz and blues without ever becoming either. An effortless blend of noir moodiness one moment ("Little by Little") or psychedelic reverie the next ("Learn to Fly"), the music evokes a certain careworn state of nervous ecstasy. There's also an elastic quality to the songs, which rarely surpass four minutes but somehow feel like they last much longer. Hardly a guitarless trio -- that was Morphine's claim to fame -- Twinemen boasts the talents of six-stringer Stuart Kimball (currently touring as the group's bassist), whose subtle and sinewy style accents the overall soul chemistry of the main players.
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