By Eleni P. Austin
Not many bands form and wait more than 20 years to release their debut record, but that’s exactly what The Psycho Sisters did.
Both Susan Cowsill and Vicki Peterson had experienced the astonishing highs and devastating lows associated with the music industry by the time they began making music together in the early 90s.
Susan was the youngest member of the Cowsills, the singing family that inspired television’s “Partridge Family.” Galvanized by the Beatles, brothers Bill, Bob and Barry began harmonizing and playing guitars, younger brother John joined in on drums. By the time they were signed to MGM Records in 1967, their mother, Barbara, had joined the band on vocals.
They had a massive hit single, with “The Rain, The Park And Other Things.” The song reached #2 on the charts. Soon after youngest siblings, Paul and Susan completed the Cowsills line-up. Their last substantive hit, “Indian Lake” hit the Top 10 in 1968. It also made Susan, at only nine years old, the youngest person in history to perform on a Top 10 record.
Of course the Cowsills split apart. The acrimony the siblings feel is mostly directed at their father/manager, Bud. An oppressive, abusive autocrat, he took his execrable managerial cues from the Beach Boys’(father/manager) Murry Wilson. He squandered their money, leaving the kids with enormous tax bills, for dough they earned but never spent.
Vicki Peterson’s brush with stardom arrived almost 20 years later as the lead guitarist and vocalist for the Bangles, which included Susannah Hoffs (vocals, guitar) Michael Steele (bass and vocals) and Vicki’s sister, Debbi, (drums).
The L.A. band formed in the early 80s and along with Rain Parade, Dream Syndicate and the Three O’Clock were an integral part of the Paisley Underground scene. One of the most successful female bands ever, they released three albums through Columbia.
The label managed to sand away the quartet’s rough edges, turning them into reluctant sex symbols. Prince took notice and gave the band their first Top 10 hit, “Manic Monday” in 1986. Chafing at their restrictive image, and the media’s myopic focus on Hoffs, the Bangles came apart at the seams by the early ‘90s.
Peterson sought refuge in the Continental Drifters, a band that included Mark Walton from Dream Syndicate, Peter Holsapple from the db’s, and Susan Cowsill. (Holsapple and Cowsill were married at the time). The Drifters relocated from L.A. to New Orleans and released several critically acclaimed albums but never broke through commercially. Holsapple and Cowsill eventually divorced and she married drummer, Russ Broussard.
It was during the early years of Continental Drifters that Susan and Vicki began performing as The Psycho Sisters. They played live, opening for the Go Go’s on their 1994 reunion tour. They kinda sorta became “celebrity” back-up vocalists for everyone from Giant Sand to Steve Wynn to Hootie & The Blowfish.
By the turn of the 21st century, Susan was fronting her own band with Russ, and Vicki had reunited with the Bangles and married Susan’s brother, John (who is a singing drummer for Mike Love’s touring version of the Beach Boys).
It wasn’t until 2012 that they carved out time to finally record a proper Psycho Sisters album. They turned to Kickstarter for funding, and the result is Up On The Chair, Beatrice.
The album opens with the Sisters’ version of the Cowsills’ song “Heather Says.” Cloaked in a slightly Elizabethan roundelay, the lyrics offer sharp observations of playground politics. The titular Heather is a tyrannical tween despot! “Heather does bad things in class, but she never no-never gets blamed/And I’ll wager already this week about 15 more kids have been framed.” The words completely resonate in today’s climate of cyber bullies.
A trio of songs, “Gone Fishin’,” “Fun To Lie” and “Never Never Boys” tackle the (always fertile) topic of immature men. “Gone Fishin’” weds crystalline, Sunshine Pop harmonies to a woozy Country Western melody. The lyrics paint an acrid portrait of a Big Easy Lothario caught in his own intricate web of lies. Rather than come clean, he abdicates all responsibility and metaphorically goes fishin’.
“Fun To Lie” blends ringing, Byrdsy guitar, sweet organ colors and a propulsive beat. Soaring harmonies belie a tale of betrayal and infidelity. Confronting a series of shifty Casanovas the Sisters conclude “So it seems everyone plays this game, no one means what they say/So it seems I should do the same, I should play, I should learn to lie.”
“Never Never Boys” feels like the distaff version of “September Gurls,” the wistful Big Star track the Bangles covered back in 1986. As Alex Chilton and the Big Star boys pined for shallow gurls who broke their hearts, Vicki and Susan bemoan the surfeit of callow Peter Pans that left them lovesick.
Co-written by Vicki and Bob Cowsill, the melody walks a fine line between alt. country and jangle pop, with searing lead guitar, thrumming bass lines and a rock steady beat. The trenchant lyrics offer this hard won wisdom: “I know he needs me, and I know he’ll never change/And I can understand why that’s not so strange/’Cause if you don’t grow up you don’t have to be intimate, responsible or free.”
Although “Numb” and “This Painting” are solo compositions from Vicki, both are bathed in the Crescent City rhythms of Susan’s adopted home town. The former blends sawing violin notes that swirl and stutter with blistering guitar riffs and see-saw percussion. The lyrics detail an all-consuming, toxic relationship.
On the latter, stop-start rhythms, fractious guitar chords and swooping violin frame this bitter break-up yarn. What is supposed to be a surprise assignation becomes a spiteful kiss-off, complete with parting gift.
“I thought I’d come up and surprise you in bed, but I found this canvas lying there instead/A fat blonde lady in an easy chair, with flowers and creatures growing out of her hair/I never liked it, you knew that, didn’t you?”
Other interesting tracks include the stripped down psychedelia of “Wish You” and the frothy farewell of “What Do You Want From Me” (written by Peter Holsapple). The slinky “Timberine” was inspired by a stay in a Big Bear cabin that included a Ouija board session.
The album closes with a cover of the Monkees’ “Cuddly Toy.” The Sisters began recording this album in 2012, both slightly grief-stricken by the sudden death of Davy Jones. (He had been a first crush for both women.)
The jaunty tune is equal parts Ragtime and British Music Hall. It’s a sweet homage to Jones, as well as the song’s composer, the late Harry Nilsson.
The Psycho Sisters were ably assisted by Derrick Anderson on bass, Jack Craft on Cello, Sam Craft on violin, Tony Daigle percussion and Janson Lohmeyer on piano, organ and accordion. Drum duties were traded between the husbands, Russ Broussard and John Cowsill.
These songs aren’t new but they feel fresh. Up On The Chair, Beatrice is a labor of love, 22 years in the making. It was definitely worth the wait.