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A D.C. spin on Morphine’s cult-favorite ‘Cure for Pain’

A cover-by-cover remake of Morphine’s “Cure for Pain,” done by D.C. musicians, has been a labor of love for Lee Dunham. (Greg Maly)

In 1993, the iconoclastic alternative act Morphine reached its apex with the album “Cure for Pain.” And while the Boston-born trio doled out narcotized, low-end-heavy rockers, the band took its name not from the opiate, but from “Morpheus,” the Greek god of sleep and dreams.

Nearly 30 years later, “Cure for Pain” has inspired a range of local musicians to interpret Morphine’s cult-favorite record as they seek deeper, personal meanings by covering the album, song-by-song. On Sept. 10, DMV-based label Growroom Productions will release the covers as its first volume of “Growroom Interpretations.”

The album is a labor of love for Lee Durham, multi-instrumentalist and co-founder of the label. While Morphine appeared on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” and MTV’s “120 Minutes,” and had its songs featured in “Beavis and Butt-Head” and “The Sopranos,” Durham’s first memory of hearing the band was when it was featured on Bob Dylan’s “Theme Time Radio Hour” show in 2007.

Morphine’s “Thursday,” a song that struck Durham as different from anything the folk legend would usually play on his radio show, appeared on an episode themed around the days of the week — alongside U2’s “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” and The Rolling Stones’ “Ruby Tuesday.” He tracked down the song and the album it appeared on, “Cure for Pain.” What he found was a jazz- and blues-infused alt rock album by a power trio that combined drums, baritone sax and detuned, two-string bass guitar with the sultry croon of frontman Mark Sandman.

“I just loved the way [“Cure for Pain”] flows as one piece of art … set apart from time,” he recalls. “It just could exist at any time and music history.”

The album’s timeless quality stuck with him, and for years, he imagined reworking the slinky, jazz-kissed title track into soul ballad with a waltzing 6/8 beat — something that Otis Redding or Etta James would have sung. He recorded a simple demo version of the song but it stayed on the shelf as he focused on original music for his record label.

But Morphine and “Cure for Pain” wouldn’t be on the back burner for long, especially as the media attention around the nation’s opioid epidemic reached a fever pitch. Inspired by the connection between “Cure for Pain” and a cure for pain that had taken a dark turn, Durham decided to properly record not just a cover of the title track, but of every song on the album, donating proceeds to charity: the Public Justice Center, a Maryland-based nonprofit focused on poverty and racial inequity.

Durham began curating the cover album, looping in collaborators largely from D.C.’s vibrant music scene. When possible, he matched musicians with songs with lyrics that would resonate personally — whether about a broken relationship or a newfound personal freedom. But he encouraged the musicians to make the songs their own.

“I think our interpretation takes a lot of different twists and turns,” he said. “[Morphine’s] original is like little vignettes on the same street, and ours takes the listener to different towns in different time periods.”

The “Growroom Interpretations” embrace the original album’s wide-ranging influences, but take the noirish tunes in different directions. Backbeat Underground and Brother GoodLove amp up the funk on “Buena”; the Bumper Jacksons Duo take “Candy” to an old-time lounge; Forrest Fire turn “Mary Won’t You Call My Name” into straight-ahead punk rock.

But the song that kicked off the entire project remained the toughest nut to crack. Eventually, Durham brought in Zach Cutler, a D.C.-based guitarist and the musical director for the Impressions, to play on the title track. Cutler — a musician who seems to know everyone in the local scene — also found a vocalist that could bring the song to life as an old-school soul ballad: Deborah Bond.

“She killed it better than I could have even imagined,” Durham said. “She phrased things exactly like I had in my head, that I never even had to communicate to her. It was just amazing.”

Bond sings mostly R&B and soul music, and she says she never imagined herself doing something with a song by Morphine. But the charitable component and the style of the cover made participating a “no-brainer.”

“It almost reminded me of something that I could hear Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings playing,” Bond said. “It was really attractive, just to get the track and to hear it and think, ‘Okay, now this is really different from the original, what can I bring to this?’”

Recording the song during covid-spurred lockdowns also resonated with Bond, a native of New Haven, Conn., who has spent more than 20 years as part of the D.C. music community. Instead of the live performances that have been her bread and butter, collaborations and connections were forced to the studio, whether in-person or virtually.

“There’s this duality of creating in a time when a lot of creatives were stuck, but then also listening to the lyrics of the song, which felt so in line with how I’m sure many were feeling during that time,” she said.

Along with the Morphine cover song, Bond utilized quarantine to write and record a new album. And while the number of collaborators of the pandemic-borne project would make a release party difficult, Bond is ready to hit the road for a handful of dates along the East Coast, including one at D.C.’s Pie Shop on Oct. 7.

“It’s time to at least get a little inkling of human connection with performing, which for me, is my cure for pain,” Bond said. “Relating to people and touching people and letting them know that they’re not alone and letting the music give them some life? I’m so ready for that.”

“Growroom Interpretations Vol. 1: Cure for Pain” will be released Sept. 10.