The sweeping weight of the Nirvana-led tidal wave in the early-1990s marked a commercial watershed for American alternative rock underlings and underachievers. Little wonder then that major label A&R scouts heard the chime of potential cash registers as they scoured independent release schedules and offbeat live venues in search of the next Nirvana. While some bands stuck stoically with independent labels (Buffalo Tom, Pavement, Come, etc.), others succumbed, rightly or wrongly, to the allure of ditching day-jobs to record albums with beefier budgets and to tour the globe with fiscal-backing. Amongst the latter-signees came a glut of corporate-whoring grunge fodder (Soundgarden, Babes in Toyland, L7, Stone Temple Pilots, ad infinitum), as well as a smattering of artistically ambitious charmers (Mudhoney, Eleventh Dream Day, The Lemonheads) who seemed somewhat oblivious to the machiavellian mechanics of the majors. New York’s Madder Rose – the authors’ of this month’s unappreciated album – found themselves pitched-up within the latter camp.
Fronted by the deliciously delicate tones of Mary Lorson, musically directed by guitarist Billy Coté, and anchored by the redoubtable rhythm section of Matt Verta-Ray and Johnny Kick, Madder Rose gleamed amongst the pearls and swines fighting for space in record store racks. Owing far more to the angular and artful dark-pop of The Velvet Underground, Sonic Youth, and Throwing Muses than to any of the Nirvana/Pearl Jam wannabes floating around at the time, Madder Rose tapped astutely into the passion, pain, and paranoia of urban living. With 30something maturity on their side, Madder Rose had far more to invest in their songs than the bulk of their peers. With a collective record collection that held both depth and diversity and past occupations that primed them as astute observers of New York’s urbanite counter-culture (with Andy Warhol’s silk-screen printing workshop and NYC taxi-firms being amongst the eye-opening employers), Madder Rose had plenty of meaty material to sandwich into their melodic and dissonant dream-pop.
After a series of sought-after 7″ singles on New York indies, the band’s full-length debut, Bring it Down (on Atlantic subordinate Seed Records) emerged in 1993 to rapturous critical acclaim. Although, with hindsight, Bring it Down possessed a little too much grainy ambience and drug-damaged darkness, it was solid start and enough to establish fruitful touring partnerships with the likes of The Sundays, The Juliana Hatfield Three, and Belly. Keen to keep pushing things forward, the band made profitable use of touring time to preview and prepare material for their second (and best) album – to be entitled Panic On. As Billy Coté recently recalled to me, the group’s desire to record and release a stronger second album as soon as possible figured heavily in their tightening schedules. “The plan was to release it one year after Bring it Down, which was pretty fast. Half the songs were written by the time Bring it Down came out, and the rest were written while touring.” Despite the inevitable distractions of the road, Madder Rose dug diligently into the new material as Coté recollects, “We had a very strong work ethic then, and we would rehearse the songs sometimes after gigs in our little hotel rooms. We were partying a lot on these tours, so it’s amazing we got anything done.”
After peeling themselves off the road in September 1993, the band rehearsed for a month before absconding to Water Music Studios in Hoboken, N.J. to record with English producer Mark Freegard. Picked primarily for his well-respected work on The Breeders’ Last Splash, Freegard honoured himself as both a steady-handed studio professional and a people manager, as Coté elaborates “Freegard was really cool to work with… he had a good sense of humour, and [he] was able to deflect some of our inter-band bickering.” Not that there was really a storm of fisticuffs brewing, as Coté explains, “We, the band, all really liked each other, but we were under a lot of pressure, and had spent way too much time together. Plus, all our relationships were sort of messed up since we’d been away from home for so long.” This dual-sense of emotional estrangement and fond friendship arguably become the core character set for Panic On as an album.
Touring had brought fraught emotions as well as tighter musical adhesion – Madder Rose had simply become better musicians, which in turn allowed for more personally expressive possibilities. And if there was one song that best acted as an ambassador for Madder Rose’s discerning grasp of long-distance love-struggles, then it was “Car Song.” The ultimate in road-weary love songs, “Car Song” became one of the many jewels in Madder Rose’s colourful crown. With yearning languid verses and a soaring pedal-crunching chorus – lifted higher by the memorable torch-bearing refrain “I guess you never know / I think of you all day long” – the stubborn suits at Atlantic could have had a hit single on their hands, if only they had pushed their promo buttons a little harder.
Fitting neatly (and apparently unintentionally) into a classic 60s A- and B-side sequence, Panic On celebrated Madder Rose’s two songwriters (Coté and Lorson) and the band’s collective light/dark attack. Hence the first and lighter portion was given over exclusively to Coté’s songs, which subtly submerged dark urbanite storytelling into pop-slanted structures. Moreover, as the most direct tunesmith in the band, Coté was astute enough to provide strong melodies that his bandmates could push and pull along in line with their own interpretative strengths. Consequently, the gorgeous title-track benefited from Lorson’s delectable vocal and Kick’s arty drum patterns, just as much as it relied on Coté’s trademark shimmer ‘n’ snarl fretwork. Elsewhere, Verta-Ray came into his own too as a blissful backing vocalist on the 60s folk-flavoured “What Holly Sees” and as a versatile bass-line layer on the proto-dub pop of “Almost Lost My Mind.”
The second ‘side’ of Panic On was allocated to a slower, darker, and more opaque suite of songs, predominantly penned by Lorson. As a self-confessed fan of both Kristin Hersh and Lisa Germano, Lorson followed the route of revisiting teenage traumas through more complex and adult eyes. Thus the scabrous and fierce “Black Eye Town” felt like a night-out in NYC, fraught with violent and uneasy feelings. Elsewhere, the maniacal “Margaret” seemed to be a child-hood quarrel turning a little too serious. But these are just speculative synopsises, made in the absence of more easily extrapolated explanations. However, the seriously lovely “Foolish Ways” (another Lorson-penned cut) possessed a more universal reach, and the band’s luxuriant arrangement is one of the very best on the album and indeed within their entire catalogue.
Beautiful and balmy songs aside, the resounding strength of Panic On as a collected entity also lay within the crisp and dynamic sound that cemented the album as a whole. The band’s ambitious aim to represent themselves as both a live outfit and as a studio-minded operation was achieved with resounding savvy. With exuberant performances nailed down more or less live, in sharp succession, the band budgeted time in which to add supplementary (but far from superfluous) instrumental layers. This allowed Coté’s then-girlfriend, Diane Carpentieri, to append flute parts to the aforementioned “Almost Lost My Mind” and for Verta-Ray to overdub John Cale-inspired violin screeches to the eerie sonic melange draped over the album’s claustrophobic closer, “Mad Dog.”
Furthermore, whereas many of Madder Rose’s peers fell too far in love with the combination of reverb-heavy guitars and low-mixed vocals – which has cruelly dated many albums of the early-90s – Panic On stills sounds fresh, vivid, and comfortably modern. Lorson’s voice is forthright without being forced, Coté’s guitars switch smoothly between savagery and serenity, Verta-Ray’s bass retains melodic consistency and Kick’s drums still hold a solid and steady resonance. As modest as ever, Coté still puts much credit at the studio door of their co-producer; “[Mark] Freegard let us do whatever we wanted, and he concentrated on making whatever we played sound sonically good. His larger contribution came during the mixing process, where he really gave shape to the music…”
With seductive performances, potent production, and sublime songwriting, Panic On was truly the album that sealed Madder Rose’s place in the annals of American alternative rock. Which begs the question – was Panic On really unappreciated? Perhaps not, but it would certainly be fair to claim that it was an underappreciated album. The critics who enthused so much about Bring it Down a year earlier turned their guns on the band as the grunge bubble began to burst. Some fans were fickle too, protesting at the brighter and clearer production, claiming that the band were in some way selling-out to a “less-indie” audience. Despite the fact that Panic On sold a respectable 50-60,000 copies world-wide, which would have been considered an awesome achievement if the band had been on an independent label, it failed to come anywhere near the million plus sales of The Breeders and Belly, let alone Nirvana. Naturally, such sales statistics are meaningless to the artistic value of the album, but Atlantic label bosses were decidedly less impressed, and the band’s relationship with their corporate patrons began to deteriorate, scotching the prospects of a commercial crossover or at the very least, a sustained existence as a full-time recording/touring band.
All said and scorned however, in seclusion <i>Panic On</i> remains a majestic and highly loveable little album, one that lingers in the wilderness with other mislaid early-90s classics, waiting around with the hope that a future revival will instigate an affectionate reissue. If you still have a copy, then dig it out and remember why you loved Madder Rose enough to keep it – you have nothing to lose but 50 minutes in the company of four warm-heartened friends you never quite knew but still miss.
POSTSCRIPT: After Panic On, Madder Rose recorded and released the much-delayed Tragic Magic long-player for Atlantic in 1997, before being ungraciously dropped by the label. A fourth and final album, Hello June Fool, emerged via Thirsty Ear and Cooking Vinyl in 1999. Since the band amicably split in 2000, the core duo of Billy Coté and Mary Lorson have continued to work together on each other’s respective solo projects, namely The Jazz Cannon and Saint Low. The twosome have also been working on numerous film soundtrack projects, which over-spilt into this year’s largely instrumental album, Piano Creeps, recently released on Cooking Vinyl and The First Time Records. Original bassist Matt Verta-Ray, who left the band after Panic On, continues to work with his rockabilly-blues band Speedball Baby. A retrospective compilation of Madder Rose’s BBC Radio Sessions is set for release on London’s Strange Fruit records in the Spring/Summer of 2003, subject to the copyright clearance of Atlantic Records. A thousand thanks must go to Billy Coté for his considered cooperation with this feature.