Sisters of mercy

Your first clue as to what to expect from Austin's Therapy Sisters comes when you dial their number and get their answering machine: To leave a message for Lisa, press one; to leave a message for Maurine, press two. For the Therapy Sisters, it depends: If you're obsessive-compulsive, press one repeatedly; if you're co-dependent, please ask someone to press two; if you have multiple personalities, please press three, four, five, and six; if you're paranoid delusional, we know who you are and what you want, just stay on the line so we can trace the call.

The Therapy Sisters--Lisa Rogers and Maurine McLean--have been purveying a unique brand of folk for more than a decade now, combining backgrounds in psychological counseling (Lisa is a social worker, and Maurine has used her interpretive abilities in Spanish/English and sign language in therapeutic settings) with a love of humor and music.

The two blend elements of folk, swing, and country music with a sense of humor that alternates between sweetly silly and sardonic. They come up with something that sounds like a cross between the Andrews Sisters and Dan Hicks--a slightly sunnier version of the Roches, if you will, a band Lisa calls a "big influence."

"We're a therapy-happy society," says Lisa--who came to the Sisters after stints in various "women's" bands with a background in western swing and bluegrass. "I think anyone who's stood in line at the grocery store and read those magazines can count that as a form of analysis. There's always those quiz articles, or AA or some other support group."

"Or one-on-one, like with your hair cutter or bartender," Maurine adds. "In part, the band is about us, emoting and having our catharsis in public, but it's also about us as a band relating to the audience about the feelings we're talking about."

Although they have plenty of musical chops (Maurine was in the band No Mercy before the Sisters and has a background in Irish traditional music), the duo's real strength is the funny, punny, playful word play they use while tackling a host of modern problems. On a cut from their 1993 album Mood Swings titled "The Big One," an ode to hitting 40, Lisa announces a steady stream of age-induced considerations--"what's escrow?...uh-oh, I'm startin' to moan...stayin' close to the bathroom all day--" before turning around and welcoming the advancing years. Naming one of the advantages as "...saying 'oh, well' and really meaning it," she goes to rattle off a list of positives: "...AARP and goodbye to Tampax/and discounts wherever you go..."

Other cuts sing the praises of "Shallow Men" or bemoan the "Terminally Trendy." On the sassily swinging "My Finger is an Instrument of Death," Maurine wishes that sundry daily annoyances--needy lovers, slow drivers--could be dispatched with the ease of the sugar ants in her kitchen as she invites them all to "Shake hands with the Digit of Death."

The Sisters have already grabbed themselves a slice of big-time pie when "The Weenie-Whacking Woman"--a boogie-tempo ode to feminist action figure Lorena Bobbitt--topped the charts on the syndicated Dr. Demento Show. ("She knew that the law would never call it rape/So finally she decided to make her escape/But as she packed to leave there was one small thing she remembered/She had decided to relieve her pushy spouse of his offending member.") Unfortunately, although a crowd-pleaser live, "Weenie" never appeared on disc or record (the Sisters sent Dr. Demento a DAT).

In fact, there's a shortage of recorded Therapy Sisters material out there in general. Their first three albums are out of print, and Mood Swings is "barely available." Fear not, however: Beyond Prescription, the group's fifth album, is being readied for release even as you read this and should hit the streets soon. They're also working on a Christmas album and a greatest--or at least favorite--hits album taken from the previous four albums, which sport names like Multiple Personalities and Relapse. Prescription is the duo's most ambitious work yet; listening to the rough mixes reveals an album full of horns, more complicated arrangements, and what seems to be a bit more serious approach: songs like "World Apart" and "Secrets" deal with subjects such as romantic dysfunction and unacknowledged trauma, respectively.

"Really?" Maurine exclaims, taken a bit aback. "More serious?"
"No foolin'?" Lisa says at the same time, sounding more puzzled than shocked.

Perhaps they have a point. "Two Minds" is a classic Sisters tune, pushed along by a swooping, gamboling fiddle while the narrator ponders her divergent will--"One says 'tell you what'/The other says 'who asked ya?'" "Pool" is another paean to a mangled dangler drawn from current events--this time, about a horny-but-hapless guy who attempted union with the recirculating equipment in a swimming pool.

"I believe," Lisa says, vainly suppressing a giggle, "that the story was from St. Petersburg."

"Besides," Maurine adds, getting back to the seriousness issue when the merriment has subsided, "we even left a song off the album because it was inspired by when our dog died and was just too much of a weeper." Additionally, "Amazon" conjures up images of selling cosmetics to Xena ("Hello, Amazon/Avon calling") and "Don't Touch Me When I'm Beautiful" lampoons the ideals of beauty those products assume.

"I guess for our audience, it's about half and half," Maurine says. "Some come to see us for the laughs--we wear goofy clothes, do a lot of sing-a-longs and really go for audience reaction--and others come for the more sensitive stuff.

"I think it is a lot like therapy," she continues. "Like when you find a good therapist and you feel like you've progressed and then, to anyone you know who has a problem, you're like 'Oh, you have got to see my therapist'--I think that's how some people feel about our band. They go to have a good time, and then they leave feeling all the therapeutic benefits that nature will allow."

"And then they bring their friends," Lisa interjects. "They want to bring their friends to therapy, too."

While a song like "The Weenie-Whacking Woman" might spell typecasting hell for some more precious artists, Lisa--who wrote the nip-and-chuck ditty--embraces all the implications of the song's humor and novelty. "I have a good friend who's a sixth-grade teacher, and she said that not even an hour after it was in the news her kids were running around saying 'Watch out for your Bobbitt! Zip up your Bobbitt!' It [the song] is already a folk song, and I'd love for it to live on."

"The challenge of the weenie-whacking song," Maurine explains, "was to write it without using any of the seven words you can't say on the radio, which Lisa did."

The two aren't particularly concerned with being saddled with "Weenie" forever. "I have a hunch that there will be plenty of other weirdos giving us occasion for new songs that will take 'Weenie's' place," Lisa says.

Prescription is the most stylistically varied of the Sisters' albums, touching on western swing, funk, R&B, and even jazz. "It can be either a blessing or a curse when you like a lot of different styles," Lisa admits. "Your audience won't get bored, but on the other hand, people are going to be asking, 'What kind of music is it?' like if you haven't narrowed yourself down to one thing, you haven't defined yourself."

One of the things that have held the Therapy Sisters back has been the limitations that come with making music--day jobs and the like--but that is about to change.

"We're leaving our day jobs," Maurine reports, "and we're about to make that big push, to get out more. Our tour schedule is filling up."

"We'd love to have a regular milk run that we could go on," Lisa says.
They're ready, no doubt about it: "We've got a green Dodge van," Maurine says. "One of the ones with sliding doors on both sides, so that when you open both of them, a dolphin can jump through."

"But the dolphin was extra," Lisa adds, the disappointment in her voice apparent.

Maurine feels that the Sisters-fan dynamic is a bit different than your standard-issue pop adoration: "We were just sitting on the porch the other day, watching the rain and philosophizing, and we were talking about how with a lot of groups, people come see you because they hear your song on the radio," she says. "But with us, I think it's different, more grassroots--they see your show, then they buy your product--and afterward, when they play it, they recall the show."

The Sisters also are prepared for the somewhat, um, closer bond that often occurs when artists sing about personal decisions and problems. "We were talking to this person in Baton Rouge," Lisa recalls, "and they said, 'You could be the band that plays for those who are not yet institutionalized.'"

"People have come up and told us their personal problems," Maurine admits. "Thank God that we both have enough experience and training as social workers to make good referrals and set good boundaries."

"We have a lot of experience with people who are mentally ill or have some other form of strangeness in their lives," says Lisa, who's been a hospital chaplain in the past. "We've already played for the State Hospital [Austin's MHMR]. That's where we got our start."

"There was one guy there who had a birthday every time we came to play," Maurine remembers. "Every time, we'd sing 'Happy Birthday' for him."

"He was really aging fast," Lisa says.
They're also not particularly concerned with the risks that making a living from music often entails. "What's the worst that could happen, if we try and fail? We'd have to get regular jobs," Maurine says. "But we were doing that, so the worst has already happened."

"So let's try it," Lisa adds, "and see if the best could happen."
"Taking a chance ensures growth," Maurine replies. "That's what they say in therapy."

The Therapy Sisters play the Jefferson Freedom Cafe in Fort Worth on Saturday, August 16, for their Metroplex CD release party.


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