-- Andy Langer

Like Swimming

Morphine's kind of music, the kind that connects with people on a very physical level, is so simple that it's amazing no one's done it before. But as far as I can tell, no one has. Using exclusively lower-register instruments -- Mark Sandman's two-string bass and baritone voice and Dana Colley's bass and baritone saxophones -- the band's songs actually reverberate in the chest, treating listeners to a low-impact massage. And anything that feels this good can't be bad.

But that distinctive low-rock sound isn't just Morphine's blessing. It's also their curse. The instantly recognizable sound limits their arrangements: Voice and sax can each hit only one note at a time (though Colley sometimes manages to honk two saxes at once), while the bass can manage a two-note interval at best. It's hard to be dynamic using only three or four sounds. Now, four years after the excellent breakthrough CD Cure for Pain, the men behind Morphine have long ago played out their novelty appeal. And despite Sandman's lounge lizard affectations and the occasional use of strange guitar inventions or eerie keyboards, Morphine has never been as adventurous as it seems; except for maybe on the debut, Good, the group has always fallen closer to frat rock than no wave.

So where does that leave Like Swimming, Morphine's fourth album (and first since signing on with the big boys at DreamWorks)? Pretty much where the band started -- with a blessing and a curse. As with the previous CDs, Like Swimming, full of loping bass lines and slithery sax riffs that strut through jazzy rock numbers such as "Wishing Well" and "Empty Box," is easy to appreciate. But while newcomers may be happy with the band's warm swing, others will pine for the first time they heard Cure for Pain. Only with the CD's closer, "Swing It Low" (a title that could be a band manifesto), does Morphine hint at changes to come: With guitar, keyboards, programmed drums and no saxophone, the song (first released as a Sandman solo project) proves it's possible to capture Morphine's noir moods in mid-range as well. Too bad Tom Waits already proved that years ago. (***)

-- Roni Sarig

CDs rated on a one to five star scale.

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