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."
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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.
"It's pretty much a three-way split in terms of how these songs came to be," Colley says. "Laurie does a large portion of the singing, and she's written a large portion of the lyrics on this record. She is without question the most gifted singer out of the three of us, so it makes sense for her to be the person who sings the most, for all of our sakes."
Having cut her teeth fronting a pop/rock combo called Face to Face, Sargent easily adheres to the trio's loose and improvised formula. With a voice that's sweet and airy, mysterious and sexy, she exudes the deadly confidence of a femme fatale slingin' a pool cue, whether she's singing in English or French. (The band's "Chose Sauvage," incidentally, owes little to the Troggs' "Wild Thing," apart from giving the original title some Continental flavor.)
From a lyrical standpoint, Sargent likewise seems to value hard-boiled observations over dainty ones. "Harper and the Midget," for example, borrows from Lewis Nordan's story collection Music of the Swamp and retells the tale of a dwarf who sets a dog on fire for no reason, then has his right hand cut off. Set to a syncopated backbeat, the grizzly li'l ditty materialized through fairly random means.
"The book was laying in the studio while we were listening to the tracks," Conway recalls. "We were just kind of reading it out loud, which somehow inspired Laurie to pick it apart a little bit and piece it back together."
The more malevolent aspects of human nature crop up frequently on the album, as in the case of "Ronnie Johnson," a semi-autobiographical tune that Sargent describes as "the composite of living in a small town and how rumors kind of take things over." Without benefit of a lyric sheet, however, such unconfirmed reports remain open to interpretation -- as do the lion's share of hard-luck tales heard on the record.
"I'm sort of old-fashioned," Sargent says. "I like it when people sort of listen and figure out their own lyrics. I always feel that when lyrics are written out, it puts the pressure of poetry on them, which they're not. They phonetically and rhythmically go with the music, so I tend to not like to write them down."
Without nailing specific events or emotions to the wall, Twinemen does offer glimpses of hope to go along with all of its eerily implied fear and paranoia. "Golden Hour" is a gorgeous cut, a sunny respite directly inspired by the panoramic view from the trio's many-windowed fifth-floor loft. "It's just that time of day," Conway says. "That funny kind of lonesome, or something, feeling that comes at the end of the day, when the sun is bouncing off everything, you know. The time of day photographers love because the light is so beautiful."
But like its predecessor, Morphine, Twinemen dwells more in a nocturnal state of mind -- no fat surprise, given the history and pedigree of its players. In a live setting, the group manages to stretch the boundaries of an already spontaneously created art form.
"We're still kind of learning how to perform the songs," Conway says. "Which is really fun as a musician, 'cause you don't always know. And they change as you respond to audiences and figure out better ways to deliver the songs. Some nights we're feeling a little more roughhouse, and they get tortured a little more."
Colley's trademark skronk and wail certainly provide plenty of fun, after-hours fireworks -- especially when he sees fit to blow his tenor and baritone horns simultaneously. "I tried playing three once, but it didn't really work," he says. "I think one per hand seems to be the limit there."
Such restrictions don't really matter for a band with such open-ended aspirations. While their music rings with familiarity, Twinemen issues a sound as limitless as the talents of the man who inspired them.
"I would never, ever, ever, ever presume to fill Mark's shoes," Sargent insists. "There's no way I could fill those shoes. I wouldn't even put them on my feet! I feel like this is a completely new thing, as opposed to a continuation of something. It just happens to be with two guys who were in Morphine."
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