Madder Rose was the quintessential Lower East Side rock band, complete with sullen 30-something post-graduates of the Manhattan club scene, fuzzed-out guitars, even the obligatory aura of decadence. Guitarist Mary Lorson’s vocals key the allure — breathy and childlike, she combines the sultry hippie appeal of Natalie Merchant with the winsome, hipper charms of Juliana Hatfield. Most of the material, written by either Lorson or guitarist Billy Coté, was typical New York post-punk fare, with a bleary-eyed torpor providing a local variant on the generational angst of Seattle grunge.
With its sludgy, distorted guitars, mid-tempo pace and abstract lyrics, Bring It Down (produced by Kevin Salem) suggests the druggy languor of a heroin high, which inspired the British music press to trumpet Madder Rose as the second coming of the Velvet Underground — a hyperbolic but not altogether inappropriate benediction. The lurching, woozy tempo makes “Swim” sound as if the quartet were paddling against the beat in a bowl of oatmeal; “Lay Down Low” borrows its syncopated rhythm from the Velvets’ “Foggy Notion.” But Coté’s stinging riffs and brisk, fluid solos — along with Lorson’s coy and emotive vocals — suggest a much wider range of influences at work as well.
The six-song Swim EP packs up a remix of the album track with three new originals, an oldie and a cover of Jonathan Richman’s “I Wanna Sleep in Your Arms” (the Iggy Pop writing credit of which acknowledges the song’s appropriation of a Stooges riff). This version of “Swim” accentuates the vocals and, if anything, cuts the murk and haze of the original, but the rest of the EP revels in Madder Rose’s reputation as a baby VU: Lorson’s “Z” offers an ethereal melody over a swirl of densely distorted guitars, while Coté’s “Amnesia” and “Baby Gets High” (retrieved from the flipside of the band’s 1992 debut 45) are trippy paeans to altered states of consciousness. Even the frenetic, amphetaminized Richman tune has the band panting “I wanna sleep in your arms” as if they’re all on the verge of passing out.
Panic On wakes Madder Rose up and moves the group forward in several directions: Lorson’s distinctive vocals still take center stage, but Coté’s guitar provides a much fuller and more eclectic foil. The debut’s seedy, bohemian quality gives way to a much lighter touch, like the Roy Orbison twang Coté brings to “Car Song,” the gentle country lilt of “What Holly Sees” and the bouncy, Feelies-like perkiness of “Drop a Bomb.” Notwithstanding the leadoff song’s avowal — “I could just sleep forever” — Panic On is helpfully alert and engaged. Four long tracks — running between four and nearly six minutes each — end the album on a note of wistful romanticism, as Lorson’s evocative vocals conjure images of lost love and dark city streets.
The delightful Love You Save EP slows the titular Jackson 5 song down to a spare, mid-tempo ballad, allowing Lorson to caress the lovely melody lost in the original’s hyperactive bubblegum arrangement. (The track also gives the band a chance to showcase its new bassist, Matt Giammalvo, late of Eve’s Plumb.) In contrast, the other tracks — “No Avail,” “Diane” and Allen Toussaint’s “Ruler of My Heart” (recorded with original bassist Matt Verta-Ray) — continue in the direction suggested by the romantic mood of Panic On‘s closing tracks — restrained pop music with the tart, adult tang of a dry martini.
Decamping for the usual “artistic differences,” Verta-Ray went on to form Speedball Baby in which he played guitar. The group’s eponymous debut — retro-rockabilly skronk that sounds like warmed-over Cramps covers — doesn’t offer much in the way of originality, but it does explain why Verta-Ray felt uncomfortable in the increasingly dainty, mainstream and accessible Madder Rose. Get Straight for the Last Supper doesn’t differ appreciably from the band’s debut, aside from singer Ron Ward’s (formerly the drummer for the far more sedate Blood Oranges) surprisingly credible, wailing rendition of Van Morrison’s “T.B. Sheets.” A tempest in a beer glass.
After a long layoff, Madder Rose (with yet another bassist, Chris Giammalvo) returned with the disappointing TragicMagic, which at first reaches for a smoky late-night small-combo ambience it never quite conjures up. Co-producer John Holbrook’s dry sound puts Lorson out in front, and she doesn’t have the sultry voice this sort of slow bar-noir music demands. Sometimes tremolo guitar and languorous rhythms just aren’t enough. A third-way of the in, the album’s style shifts, and the band finds its footing briefly in the pop and mildly psychedelic stylings of “Delight’s Pool” and “(She’s a) Satellite.” But the track that follows them, “Peter and Victor,” has a melodramatic spoken vocal by Coté and the rest of TragicMagic is hit (“Don Greene”) and miss (“Best Friend”).
Having survived its major-label experience, Madder Rose nonetheless came to an end, one indie album later, around the end of the millennium. Lorson and Coté stuck together, making Piano Creeps, a spare, slow, lovely but essentially uneventful album of guitar, piano and violin instrumentals and the wispily sung “See the Stars” and the more robust “Americana #1.”
Verta-Ray runs a New York recording studio where, in 2004, he collaborated with Jon Spencer on an album under the name Heavy Trash.