PSYCHOTIC REACTION: The Psycho Sisters

Psycho Sisters crop

The Bangles’ Vicki Peterson and the Cowsills’ Susan Cowsill finally consummate a musical collaboration originally begun 2 ½ decades earlier.

BY STEVE PICK

Twenty-five years ago, Vicki Peterson found herself out of a high-profile job. Her band the Bangles had spent some time in the upper reaches of the pop charts, but then broke up amidst differing perceptions of what sort of focus the music should take.

Around this time, she met and befriended Susan Cowsill, who knew a little about hit records, having been involved in them way back in 1969 when she was 10 years old, the youngest member of her family’s band the Cowsills. Peterson and Cowsill discovered pretty quickly that their voices blended beautifully, and that they had some seriously shared musical influences and ideas. Around 1989 they began writing songs and performing live as a duo, and were recruited to lend background vocals to records by the likes of Jules Shear and Belinda Carlisle. They called themselves the Psycho Sisters, which made a kind of sense as these two, who had spent so many years perfecting harmonies with their own siblings, were able to sing together in ways normally associated with sister acts.

After a while, the Psycho Sisters found themselves members of a bigger group, the Continental Drifters, who spent the ‘90s being one of the greatest live bands in the world, recording a couple of albums including the spectacular Vermillion, and eventually splitting apart in ways foreshadowed by their very name. Cowsill left her husband, the keyboard/guitar player, and married the drummer. Peterson got back together with the Bangles. Both made terrific music in the 21st Century, and both talked now and again about revisiting the old partnership.

[Check out the track “Heather Says,” which we originally premiered here at BLURT]

Up On the Chair, Beatrice is a document of something that happened more than two decades ago, recorded now and sounding fresh and inspired. If these songs had been laid down in 1992, they would probably have received a big expensive production, and received a decent shot at the marketplace ripped open by the sudden interest in alternative rock at the time. But, with the possible exception of “Numb,” which could, with the right producer, have sounded like the best female version of Soundgarden imaginable, the likelihood is the songs wouldn’t have been given the most comfortable treatment they deserved.

Now, the budget is small and the chart expectations nonexistent, but the music is perfectly served. Peterson and Cowsill recruited their drummer husbands (Peterson married Cowsill’s actual brother John in 2003, thus becoming a bonafide Psycho Sister-In-Law), a bassist, keyboardist, cellist, and violinist to flesh out the acoustic arrangements the songs had once been given. Add to that Peterson’s exquisitely tasteful trademark electric guitar riffs and highly melodic solos, and you’ve got the perfect backdrop to the magical harmonies of these two talented singers.

Ten songs, three of them covers, three of them sisterly co-writes, three of them Peterson solo writes, and one co-written by Peterson and Susan’s brother Bob. This album gets in and gets out, enchanting without overstaying its welcome. The aforementioned “Numb” is a stunner, especially with the powerhouse riff being picked up by the violin and cello in this arrangement. “Wish You” is a nasty rocker kicked into high gear by the hard-edged harmonies the Sisters give it. “Never, Never Boys,” with its sad-eyed look at the loss of intimacy between friends who grow up, is a distant cousin to Peterson’s masterful “Dover Beach” from the Bangles’ All Over the Place album. “This Painting” is a goodbye and fuck-you song which could have been given a country treatment, but which steadfastly refuses to cry in anyone’s beer.

The covers, which undoubtedly are only a drop in the bucket known to these two long-established lovers of singing other people’s songs, are lovely. “Heather Says” was originally sung by Susan with the Cowsills all the way back in 1971, and this new version holds its own against that beautiful original. Harry Nilsson’s “Cuddly Toy” is done as a tribute to the late Davy Jones, who sang it in the Monkees – the version here feels like sinking into the fluffiest of pillows with all those “la-la-la’s” going round. Peter Holsapple (the keyboardist/guitarist to whom Cowsill used to be married) wrote “What Do You Want From Me,” and despite the fact that it instantly sounds familiar as a Holsapple classic, it has apparently never been recorded before.

Imagine the restraint involved in knowing you had written and/or sung all these really good songs, and knowing you had a fan-base of some size interested in hearing anything you did, and yet simply sitting on them for all these years. At any rate, that oversight has now been rectified, and the Psycho Sisters album is a terrific addition to the discographies of two very talented singer/songwriters.

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