Overpolished and tight to a fault
With their latest album, Fear & Fantasy, the Massachusetts-based band Vapors of Morphine promise to pull the listener “deeper and deeper into that hazy state between consciousness and unconsciousness.” But they don’t quite get people there—in fact, they’ll probably leave listeners more on the unconscious side.
Vapors of Morphine is an offshoot of the now-defunct band Morphine, who immediately disbanded after lead singer Mark Sandman tragically died of a heart attack onstage in 1999. The remaining members got together with blues guitarist Jeremy Lyons in the mid-2000s and formed the Vapors on the 10th anniversary of Sandman’s death, with Lyons on guitar, bass and vocal duties. Fear & Fantasy is their first release in five years.
The band spends a good deal of the record in blues mode, often with underwhelming results. Blues-rock should be visceral and raw, but the Vapors’ take on the form winds up sounding sterile, with over-polished, textureless production and restrained vocals. There’s absolutely no bite. It’s the kind of middle-of-the-road blues music one would expect from a group of fifty-something-year-old white guys jamming in Guitar Center—synthetic and tight to a fault, showcasing technical chops and little else.
“Doreen” is the most damning example, with its plodding chord progression and lyrics so mired in rock cliches that even your local bar band wouldn’t touch it. The tacky group vocals are guaranteed to make one recoil, and Lyons’ lead guitar work is so clean it comes off as inexpressive. His vocals are mild and unsexy, making this tale of leading a woman into sin doubly unconvincing. “Ostrich” is another dud, a milquetoast 12-bar blues number riddled with inane lyrics like “I’ll act like an ostrich and stick my head in the sand/ the woman I favor won’t take me for her man.”
When the Vapors venture outside blues territory, the outcomes are more hit-or-miss. “No Sleep” never quite hooks, although the grimey acid rock guitar solo is a nice touch, as is the sax part, which recalls The Stooges’ free jazz excursions. The reggae-tinged “Blue Dream” implies a psychedelic direction with its weedy lyrics and sense of distance, but it never comes into fruition, as the hazy textures are diluted by excessive studio polish. Even worse, the lyrics sound like a middle schooler’s conception of the drug experience.
The lead single, “Irene,” is a high point, however, with its laid-back guitar riff and gently intoxicating Velvet Underground-style vocal melody. The instrumental tracks are also solid, especially the penultimate “Phantasos & Phobetor,” which resembles the free-form freak-outs of the Red Krayola. It’s the best track, suffering from none of the problems that plague the rest of the album—the guitar feedback is appropriately scuzzy, and it actually embodies psychedelia rather than merely suggesting it. It seems the band can do really neat things when they just let loose and get weird. Too bad they weren’t doing so the entire time.
One consistently good part of this record is the drumming, courtesy of Jerome Deupree and Tom Arey. Even the worst tracks are elevated by their keen ability to suit the music at hand as they impressively cycle through different styles, from blues to reggae to jazz, and even mambo on one cut. Key moments include the syncopated “Baba Drame” and the crashing cymbals that open “No Sleep.”
Fear & Fantasy has a few promising moments, but in the end, it’s held back by sterile production and uptight musicianship, resulting in a general feeling of restraint. Until Vapors of Morphine start playing this stuff like they mean it, that “hazy state between consciousness and unconsciousness” will be just out of their reach.