Fear & Fantasy
When asked about their newest single, ‘Irene’, Vapors Of Morphine’s lead singer Jeremy Lyons said “It’s like bubble gum pop grew up, developed a drinking problem, got left at the altar, and went to bed.” It’s hard to think of a better overall description of their latest album Fear & Fantasy.
Vapors Of Morphine began in 2009 as an attempt to bring back the cult indie 90s “low rock” trio Morphine, formed by two of the original members: Baritone saxophonist Dana Colley, and drummer Jerome Dupree. They were joined by Lyons, replacing original vocalist Mark Sandman, who had tragically passed away in 1999.
Then, in 2018, Dupree dropped out of the band due to health issues, and was replaced by Tom Arey from Ghosts Of Jupiter. This album, apparently recorded over several years, includes contributions from both drummers.
The current Vapors carries on the Morphine tradition of sultry working-class blues/jazz/rock, but with a somewhat more experimental and etherial tone. Their sound seems to come from an alternate dimension where Leonard Cohen, Chris Isaak, and George Thoroughgood were the biggest acts of the 1980s – and all filtered through the off-kilter sensibilities of a David Lynch film. One could easily imagine ‘Irene’ playing in the cafe jukebox in Twin Peaks, or accompanying a drug-fueled Dennis Hopper rampage.
From start to finish, the album is anchored by Colley’s virtuoso sax, drifting through a surprising range of tones and moods for a baritone instrument. In ‘No Sleep,’ an ode to social awkwardness and anxiety, it blats ominously like a demon stalking the singer. Yet, in instrumentals such as their cover of ‘Baba Drame’ from Mali legend Boubacar Traoré, it can sound upbeat and even surprisingly folksy.
The sax is a constant presence, as it was in original Morphine, giving them their signature sound.
Lyons plays double-duty, as both singer and two-string slide bassist. His bass is smooth, and even occasionally spacey, while his voice ranges anywhere from crooning to deep depths reminiscent of Leonard Cohen.
To pay homage to their two drummers, the album is very deliberately broken into “A” and “B” sides, with Dupree’s work on the first half, and Aray taking over in the second. The changeover is nearly seamless, both have similar lounge-jazz styles and effortlessly hold together compositions with clashing elements that might otherwise seem at odds. Fans of vinyl will be happy to know a full LP will be released, and the band has indicated this is their preferred way of hearing the album.
The songs themselves are an eclectic mix of original new material, Morphine-era songs, and the occasional cover. Yet, due to the trio’s cohesiveness, the album glides along its own rocky path. A casual listener might not even notice the range of songwriters involved, even as the overall tone moves from blues to folk to country and back.
Overall, Fear & Fantasy is an album existing in its own time and place. The lack of electronics and overall old-school vibe would seem to suggest it’s meant for the nostalgia set – yet the working-class vibe allows it to feel surprisingly modern. As Morphine was before them, Vapors Of Morphine are simply doing their own thing. Anyone who appreciates something a little dark, a little bluesy, and a little drugged up may find themselves on a wild trip.