The New York City-based alternative group Madder Rose won acclaim in both the United States and Europe for their 1993 debut release, Bring It Down. Critics lauded the record for its blending of an edgy, New York-style guitar sound with singer Mary Lorson’s ethereal vocals, with one writer describing Madder Rose’s sound as a marriage of the grunge ethos and the dream-pop mode. Unfortunately, critical praise was not followed by commercial success. The group initially received airplay on the college radio circuit and moved toward rotation on alternative rock stations across the country with the singles from both Bring It Down and their 1994 sophomore effort, Panic On; yet, throughout the mid-1990s, across-the-board success seemed to elude them. Instead, Madder Rose’s contemporaries like the Cranberries—who boast a more accessible, perhaps less broody aura—have achieved platinum-selling status with a similar sound.
Madder Rose took shape in 1991 when guitarist-song-writer Billy Coté met singer Mary Lorson at a party and invited her over to his Greenwich Village apartment to audition. Longtime musician Coté was supporting himself with a job at a printmaking studio; he had spent some time singing for money on the streets of Europe and wanted to try out female vocalists for some new material he had written. The audition turned into a recording session, and the two laid down five tracks on some home equipment Cot6 owned. Further tracks were made after enlisting Matt Verta-Ray on bass, with the percussion element brought in via a drum machine. “Baby Gets High” and “Madder Rose” were two of the attention-receiving tracks included on the demo.
Lorson had been working as a waitress in New York City after earning a film degree from the University of Massachusetts. Nearing 30, she came to the realization that she wanted to pursue a career in music and relocated to New York after unsuccessful attempts to find a group of like-minded musicians in Boston. Her late start, she told Rolling Stone writer Steven Daly, made it imperative that she approach her goals with the utmost single-mindedness and purpose. The encounter with Cot6 seemed fortuitous. Cot6, who had lived in New York City for a number of years, had recently gone through a painful breakup, and the wistful, delicate songs he was writing about romantic angst seemed to mesh perfectly with Lorson’s vocal style.
The trio shopped their demo tape around to various independent labels, and they were picked up by a company called Rockville. The initial release began making the rounds at various college radio stations. Madder Rose also played live shows throughout the New York City area. The airplay and buzz around the band soon attracted the attention of Atlantic Records. The company proposed a juicy contract, “an offer that involved a lot of things we were intimidated by,” Lorson told David Sprague in a Billboard interview. “We said Thanks, but we’re not ready, ’” then Seed Records phoned. The independently-run subsidiary of Atlantic, looking for fresh alternative talent, offered Madder Rose a less formidable contract, which they accepted.
On Seed Records came Madder Rose’s first full-length release, 1993’s Bring It Down. The trio recorded it with the production assistance of Kevin Salem, a member of the alternative ensemble Dumptruck. By this time the trio of Cote, Lorson, and Verta-Ray had added a live drummer with the rather appropriate name of Johnny Kick. Bring It Down was critically acclaimed on both sides of the Atlantic, and Madder Rose began whirlwind tours opening for alternative groups like the Sundays, the Juliana Hatfield Three, Belly, and Material Issue. They also made an appearance at England’s Reading Festival in 1993.
“Beautiful John,” the initial single from Bring It Down, “encapsulates the Madder Rose modus operandi perfectly,” noted Sprague in Billboard. “Lorson’s breathy vocals soar over an alternately gossamer and grinding guitar foundation.” The song, Cot6 reported, was inspired in part by the people he had met while working as a printmaker. The studio he worked for did silk-screens for Andy Warhol, and he would take them up to
Members include Billy Cote, lead and rhythm guitar, slide, and vibes; Johnny Kick (joined group 1993), drums, background vocals, piano, organ, and vibes; Mary Lorson, vocals, guitar, piano, and organ; and Matt Verta-Ray (bandmember 1991-94; replaced by Chris Giammalvo), bass.
Band formed in New York City in 1991; released first album, Bring It Down, on Seed Records (a subsidiary of Atlantic Records), March 1993; toured the United States with the Sundays and the Juliana Hatfield Three, late 1993.
Addresses: Record company —Atlantic Records, 75 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10019.
The Factory, as Warhol’s enclave was known. He became acquainted with the artists and performers who frequented the Warhol studio. “A lot of the superstars were still on the periphery but they were older, sadder,” he remembered in the Billboard interview.
The Madder Rose EP Swimwas released in September of 1993, followed less than half a year later by the group’s second full-length album, Panic On. The four members of the group coproduced the record along with Mark Freegard, who had previously worked on both the Clash’s hallmark 1982 double LP Sandinistal, as well as the Breeders’ platinum 1993 release Last Splash.
Unusual instrumentation, including a stand-up bass, violin, and a flute, was combined with Cote’s guitar work and Lorson’s quiet vocal force to give a characteristically distinct Madder Rose sound. Five songs on the release were written by Lorson, with the others penned by Coté. According to him, some of the Madder Rose material and general mood was admittedly influenced by the Velvet Underground, ironically the “house band” during the late-1960s heyday of Warhol’s Factory and lauded since for their gritty yet ethereal sound. “I know it’s almost a cliche to be influenced by the Velvet Underground, but they had psychotic rock-out songs back-to-back with beautiful lullabies, which is something we’ve always tried to achieve,” Cote confessed in some promotional material that accompanied Panic Orfs release.
Discussing the release, Daly declared in Rolling Stone that “the key to Panic is a carefully balanced tension between innocent pop melodies and rancorous slabs of guitar noise.” In a review of Panic On for the same magazine, contributor Kara Manning praised the Madder Rose talent evident on the record, especially lauding the combination of Cote’s edgy guitar work with Lorson’s vocals. According to Manning, the vocalist seemed to have risen above the typical pop-waif persona—a persona and style of singing that seemed to be increasingly popular in the ’90s, as evidenced by the rise of female-fronted alternative acts like the Cranberries and Frente! Manning noted that instead, Lorson “sings of sleep and love and longing with an abrasive kiss, soaring blissfully into a desperate soprano, her whisper conveying the emotional impact of a scream.”
The release of Panic On was met with both success and upheaval within the band. Verta-Ray left shortly after its completion to pursue other interests and was replaced by Chris Giammalvo, late of Eve’s Plumb. From their genesis as a band, it seemed that Madder Rose’s sound was fueled by dissonance of one kind or another—personal or professional crises that sparked the songwriting process. “I’m always moved when I hear something sweet undercut by something ominous,” Cote told Rolling Stone’s Daly. “When I write a pretty song, I always hear feedback in the back of my head.” Another set of tour dates followed the release of Panic On. British journalist Andrew Smith saw the band in a London venue and wrote about the performance for the Guardian. He lauded the live renditions of their less abrasive tunes such as “the dreamy ‘Panic On, ’ the splendidly off-kilter, Throwing Muse-esque ‘Swim’ and the bittersweet’Lights Go Down, ’” and noted “the quieter Madder Rose get, the better they get. This … is the mark of a good band.”
Bring It Down, Seed/Atlantic, 1993.
Swim (EP), Seed/Atlantic, 1993.
Panic On, Atlantic, 1994.
Billboard, May 8, 1993, p. 14; March 26, 1994, p. N54.
Entertainment Weekly, March 25, 1994, p. 54.
Guardian, April 13, 1994, p. 6.
Rolling Stone, June 30, 1994, p. 76; August 11, 1994, p. 29.
Further information for this profile was obtained from promotional material provided by Atlantic Records.
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