What happens when you throw together Susan Cowsill—yes, of that family group—and Bangles guitarist Vicki Peterson? You get The Psycho Sisters. What exactly does that mean? Well, that’s a combination not easily defined.
First off, their debut album is called Up on the Chair, Beatrice, but the meaning of that title is a mystery. Peterson laughed when she told me it’s an inside joke, and she wasn’t telling. Surprisingly, the album isn’t a collection of new songs. Instead, Cowsill and Peterson went into their Psycho Sisters vaults to record tunes they had come up with back in the ’90s. In those days, the Psycho Sisters saw themselves primarily as background singers behind the likes of Jules Shear, Belinda Carlisle, and Hootie and the Blowfish.
For a time, the pair were members of the Continental Drifters, which included the Dream Syndicate’s Mark Walton, guitarist Robert Mache, the dB’s’ Peter Holsapple, and New Orleans drummer Russ Broussard. Broussard, Cowsill’s husband, would become one of the two drummers on Up on the Chair, Beatrice. The other stickman would be John Cowsill, Susan’s brother and Vicki’s husband. That marriage, of course, made the Psycho Sisters sisters in fact—well, at least in law.
One clue to the sound of the Psycho Sisters is just how they got their name. At their first 1991 gig, they hadn’t yet come up with a moniker. But, as they performed in their nightgowns, L.A. scene maker Bill Bartell came up with Psycho Sisters, and the duo agreed that label fit perfectly. (Peterson says the name came from the movie with that title, but it wasn’t released until 1995.) While their harmonies are in the tradition of the Indigo Girls, The Chapin Sisters, The Everly Brothers and the like, their songs are not anyone’s typical fare.
For example, the 30-minute set opens with “Heather Says,” a sweet-sounding but disturbing track that’s about a fourth grade bully. It’s a rather unsettling number Cowsill first sang in 1971 on The Cowsills’ On Our Side album. One of many songs about disappointing relationships, Peterson’s autobiographical “This Painting,” is a bluesy number describing an unwanted painting of “a fat blonde lady in an easy chair with flowers and creatures growing out of her hair.”
Whatever the subjects—mostly the travails of finding the right guy or getting over him—there’s a spirit of girls’ night out in all 10 songs. This is partly due to the poppy arrangements and melodic hooks from the supporting players. You’ll think The Bangles in “Fun to Lie” and enjoy the multi-tracked harmonies in “What Do You Want from Me.” Jangle country grooves enlivens “Never Never Boys,” a song about young men who don’t want to grow up. They go straight from their mother’s door to their girlfriends, and Peterson notes, “There’s plenty of those guys around.”
The ladies get even more down-home in another song about a guy who wants to evade responsibility, but Danny has the right idea—he’s “Gone Fishin’.” The ladies get more hard-edged in “Numb,” where a violin plays the lead in a tale of what the narrator would love to feel. “Wish You” is memorable due to an almost spooky guitar lead that offsets the lyrics that signal someone really is missed, but where they’ve gone is suspect.
The final cut, Harry Nilsson’s “Cuddly Toy” draws from Cowsill’s crush on Davy Jones and this tribute is to honor the ex-Monkee after his passing. I suppose you could say it’s another nod to unrequited love, but on a more innocent level.
In short, Up on the Chair, Beatrice is radio-friendly fun with interesting stories being told. While not designed that way, the album has the feel of music produced in the ’90s and just now discovered, even if the voices are not as girlish as they likely were back then. (The album photo isn’t recent, but rather one of the duo back in the day.) If you like your pop with both hooks and quirks, here you go. With any luck at all the Psycho Sisters will return and reveal where they’re at these days. After all, all the tales of young love are, as Peterson says, songs that should be shared, but two happily married women now must move beyond old boyfriends. I’m happily waiting for their sophomore effort.Powered by Sidelines