Part one of a Sandbox two-fer!
sandbox. – Bionic (1995 EMI)
Because it was the 1990’s, and you had to do stuff like this, Sandbox referred to themselves as “sandbox.” with the period at the end. This being 2015, in this review we’re just going to call them Sandbox. Sandbox were very, very 1990’s with some melancholy music and an abstract album cover of an apple with nails in it. There is no reason for this that I can tell. It may well have just been, “Hey, let’s make this apple look like the guy from Hellraiser.”
Sandbox were from Nova Scotia, and have two really interesting connections. One, the lead singer Paul Murray is the nephew of Anne Murray, who made “Snowbird” a national treasure back in the 70’s. Two, the lead guitar player was a talented fellow named Mike Smith. Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last 10 years, then you know Mike Smith as his Trailer Park Boys alter-ego, Bubbles. I saw these guys opening for the Barenaked Ladies back in 1996 and was impressed by the six tunes they played.
The big hit was “Curious” and it’s still fantastic once you get past the trendy 90’s-isms. (By that I’m referring to the watery, distorted vocals, lack of a solo, and simple construction.) But damn, what a song. All the right parts are there. The guitar riff works its way into your brain effortlessly, and the band provide all the necessary backing. Paul Murray is not a singer of remarkable range or power, but his voice works with the music to create a a wave that washes over you. Mike Smith and the band are more than capable of providing melodic backing vocals.
The problem with the Bionic album was that it had a couple really strong, powerful songs and a lot that didn’t have the same impact. “Collide” is a good song, but it plods along without enough excitement. It doesn’t get you moving. I think a few of these tunes worked better live. The studio can be a stifling environment, and it took Sandbox an album to really grow in the studio. “For You” boasts a strong chorus hook, but again not enough spark.
“Decisions”, dark quiet and slow, boasts a great chorus and impassioned lead vocals. It is augmented by a nice cello part, which works so well for dark tracks such as this. “Decisions” is a standout on the album, with a big part of that being due to the cello. More songs on Bionic would have done well with some augmentation like that. “Grief” is similarly dark, but edgy. I dig the backwards guitar solo, a touch I have always loved in rock music. “Three Balloons and a Trapdoor” is the kind of song title I find annoying, but the cello is back. It’s a sparse little acoustic song without much else going on with it besides the cello. It sounds like a side closer, and that’s the exact position it occupies on the CD running order. Coincidence? I don’t think so.
“Here and There” is the first song that rocks in a while, and it’s very welcome. It could have used more hooks, but it gets the job done well enough. It takes advantage of the jangling guitar chords of Mike Smith and Jason Archibald. Then, “Live” is a fantastic song. Where sometimes, Sandbox’s songs seem to lack sufficient passion and memorable melody, “Live” completely delivers. I feel the sadness, and I can swim in the melodic vocals like a river. “Flux” and “Weatherman” are both OK. “Flux” has a nice hard beat and a chorus I can get into. “Weatherman” is sparse, acoustic and intimate.
The last amazing tune, on a par with “Curious”, is the incredible “Lustre”. A simple guitar lick coupled with another killer chorus is all it takes. A classy acoustic guitar solo just makes it all so perfect. It’s hard to describe just what makes the song click, but it has clicked with me for almost 20 years, so there must be something good going on here.
The final track is the slow and dull “And the Mood Changes…”, followed by silence and then a strange distorted spoken word bit that always struck me as another 90’s gimmick. I was wrong, it is actually the first part of the second Sandbox album, which was a concept album called a murder in the glee club. This spoken word bit is meant to lead directly into the beginning of that album, a story of a killer who is tormented by what he has done. And speaking of that second album, what an album it was! Sandbox obviously benefited from the studio experience on Bionic, because what they achieved on a murder in the glee club was something quite special and fantastic. But that’s another review.