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American music club
Susan Cowsill’s haunting solo debut

Suppose you’d been a pop star when you were eight, been an indie-pop figure for a couple of decades since then, and done music in New England, Los Angeles, and New Orleans. Odds are good that you’d have a few interesting things to say by the time you got around to making a solo album.

There’s a certain kind of audience, for starters, those who gravitate to ’60s pop and Americana and who love an emotive melody above all else, that will feel right at home with Susan Cowsill’s Just Believe It (Blue Rose import). Those folks may remember Susan as the kid sister in the ’60s family group the Cowsills (inspiration for The Partridge Family), or later as a singer with Dwight Twilley, Redd Kross, and other power-poppers. Then came the Continental Drifters, the roots-pop combo she played in during the ’90s. That band absorbed enough of the right kinds of music — ’60s pop harmonies, Southern soul, alt-country, and British folk rock — and played enough go-for-broke shows to become a cause célèbre for some of us. And her solo debut picks up nicely where the last Drifters disc, the emotionally charged Better Day (Razor & Tie), left off.

Which is not to say that Just Believe It is just a solo version of a Drifters album, even if the musical range is similar and another pair of Drifters (drummer Russ Broussard, who’s Cowsill’s husband, and singer Vicki Peterson, also of the Bangles) are featured on it. Rather, it bears out the idea that one’s first solo album tends to be an autobiography in disguise. Cowsill was the resident ballad writer in the Drifters, often drawing on some unspecified sadness to fuel songs with a haunting touch. That trend continues here. "Nanny’s Song," a countryish tune about watching the death of a loved one, is as haunting as it gets. Like many of these tracks, it risks getting sentimental but never does, coming out instead with the disarming quality of a Lucinda Williams song. Williams herself adds harmonies, and the blend of voices is as shiver-inducing as you’d hope.

Elsewhere, Cowsill and her band (the line-up includes guitarist Chris Knotts and former Cowboy Mouth bassist Rob Savoy) become an American music club, putting accordions, harmonicas, and slide guitars into the mix. The New Orleans influence turns up in surprising places: a Cajun lilt (and Broussard’s washboard) spices up the otherwise poppy title track. And a blues-harmonica solo sneaks into the one cover, Sandy Denny’s "Who Knows Where the Time Goes," the mother of all haunting folk-rock ballads. But the other side of Cowsill’s personality, which came out less in her Drifters songs, is the more exuberant one. "Know You Know" may have a peace-and-love lyric (complete with a Beatles quote in the fadeout), but it’s played as full-blown garage rock with fuzz bass. The Beatles influence turns up again on the psychedelic-tinged "White Light," which ends the disc with heavenly harmonies and a ripping guitar solo, redeeming the some of the earlier sadness. So it’s tempting to call this an album about healing, but that would make it sound less fun and more new-agey than it is.

Reached by phone at her New Orleans home, Cowsill puts things more bluntly: "It’s about survival, taking care of each other and getting through the shit." All of which, she hints, have been issues in her own life. "That’s one reason I love the Sandy Denny song, because she wrote from the depths of that well. I spent decades in sorrow, and I came to realize that you have a choice. Once you can believe that, you take those boulders you’re carrying around and break them down into pebbles." As for the musical stretch on the disc, "I’d love to say that I meticulously and gracefully planned all of it, but that would be a bald-faced lie. I had been writing some more diverse things in the Drifters, but I never finished them. This time, I had to go as far as writing a rock-and-roll song. I did want the first solo album to be something special, because after that, the next record is just the next record."

She and her band will perform at the Back Bay Hilton this Saturday night; the show is a benefit for the Boston Medical Center’s Elders Living at Home program. (For details, visit www.bmc.kintera.org/cowsill.) But Cowsill also made an unheralded appearance in town just last month. It seems the Red Sox took a liking to "Hair," which she’d recorded with the Cowsills in the late ’60s, and so the team brought Susan and her brothers — who grew up and formed their band in Newport — to sing it at Fenway Park. "It was an emotional high point in my life, a lot more than I expected. My brothers were soaring, diehard fans that they are." In fact, the Cowsill crew hit town in the middle of the Yankees series, sang "Hair" and the national anthem, and the Sox went on to win it all. Draw your own conclusions.

Susan Cowsill performs a benefit concert for the Boston Medical Center’s Elders Living at Home Program this Saturday, November 20, at 7 p.m. at the Back Bay Hilton, 40 Dalton Street in Boston; call (617) 638-6139.

Issue Date: November 19 - 25, 2004
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