Major Stars Return to Form

[Drag City; 2010]

Styles: psych-rock
Others: Cream, Hendrix, Joplin. No, seriously.

The first time I heard Major Stars was several years ago, when I stumbled upon a bootlegged copy of a limited-edition live split they did with fellow psych revivalists Comets on Fire. The band’s contribution to Live in Europa was everything I needed at the time: chugging, unrelenting super-riffs blanketed mightily over crack-a-lack drums and blurry bass grooves, the levels on the recording pushed way into the red, everything rough and tumble and fuzzed-out beyond oblivion. It was a revelation — from the huge crop of bands at the time cribbing relentlessly from psych-rock oldsters like Blue Cheer and Hawkwind, Major Stars stood out not merely as one of the ablest of imitators, but as a band tremendously inspired, a band who really got it.

But that was where Major Stars ended for me. The Boston-based band, with its rotating cast of characters, released a few LPs throughout the aughts, none of which really drew me in. I listened briefly and with mild interest to 2005’s 4, but their studio recordings just didn’t exude the same brute strength as the live jams with which I fell head over heels in love at first. Enter Return to Form. One quick listen to this baby and it is instantly recognizable as a Major Stars record: the triple guitars, the abundance of high-end in the mix, the endless parade of wanked-out solos (and, oh man, the solos: guitarist Wayne Rogers wants you to know that he can fucking play). Sadly, it is also a Major Stars studio record, chock full of riffs and layers but ultimately rendered somewhat listless within the confines of the medium.

Album opener “Better Stay Down” hits like an anvil, rocking right out of the gate, but loses steam immediately as vocalist Sandra Barrett chimes deliberately and awkwardly in. Her voice has been described in reviews as sounding like Heart’s Ann Wilson, and that’s not terribly far off. It is a classic sort of timbre that could shine given the right kind of tunes; unfortunately, more often than not, the thickness of Major Stars’ guitar assault overwhelms Barrett’s singing and makes her sound small, flat, and ineffective. I mean this not as a critique of her voice itself; rather, I wonder whether Major Stars could hit harder with no vocals at all.

There are instances where Barrett’s voice boosts the album’s moxie, as on “The Space You Know,” where a plaintive melody and a doubled vocal track transform a borderline-dull rocker into something special and exciting. Likewise, “Two Degrees” displays a more confident-sounding Barrett exploring a higher range to nice effect. But there are more missteps than victories. Take “Haunting Season,” flawed from the title down. Painfully paint-by-numbers, the track ambles aimlessly through five and a half long minutes of drop-D nonsense, never finding (or even reaching for) a serious foothold. It could be something overheard at a pool hall somewhere in Kansas or an outtake from an early Soundgarden album. It’s a total drag; an almost unlistenable flub on what is otherwise a decent, if uninspired, album.

And that is essentially why listening to Return to Form is a disappointing experience. It’s mostly enjoyable on a surface level or if you’re in the right mood (or under the right influence), but it doesn’t beg repeated listens. “Live” bands like Major Stars are rarely able to translate their in-person bombast to tape. At least they can still pummel their crowds with monster-ass riffs.

Links: Major Stars - Drag City

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