The main man of Morphine, bassist and singer Mark Sandman (1953-1999), had a lot of music in him. Before the 1990 formation of that unique trio -- saxophone, bass and drums, with no guitars or keys -- Sandman anchored the Massachusetts roots-rock outfit Treat Her Right. During and between those gigs, he apparently was a compulsive recorder, preserving miscellaneous songs that might not've fit into his "day job" band. Far from a let's-capitalize-on-the-dead-artist package, Sandbox -- two CDs and a DVD -- collects, via the auspices of Morphine mates Dana Colley and Billy Conway, what Sandman was doing on the side. Not to indulge in hyperbole, but his cast-offs and side projects are better than what many performers sling out to the marketplace as their "best."
True, a few songs sound like Morphine outtakes or leftovers, albeit very good ones: "Justine" has that lean, snaking, Beat-jazz-flavored groove, and "The Phone" is a late-night phone-sex invocation, all purring multiple Sandman voices and distant, cyclic percussion beats. But then there's "Some Other Dog," a slice of shuffling, white-hot Chicago blues, with searing Little Walter-style harmonica that burns like your most recent heartbreak. And what about the unabashedly romantic Tex-Mex ballad "Hombre" (sung partly in Spanish), where the man chases the ghosts of old-school crooners Roy Orbison and Marty Robbins? And just for variety, there's the Run DMC-meets-Poi Dog Pondering folky funk of "Deep Six" and "Living with U," the latter sneaking in some dub reggae echo in the horns.
The unifying qualities of Sandbox are Sandman's inviting, clear, honest singing, and the slightly rough-hewn joie de vivre in the instrumental performances. By and large, Sandbox is not a for-devotees-only collection -- anyone who values music encompassing both "roots" and restless creativity (Tom Waits, say) ought to save up for this one.