“just another lesson we have got to unlearn”
Are Major Stars a thing of my past? They’re playing tonight, on the opposite coast, where I used to see them often with friends. Some of those shows were transcendent and Sandra Barrett’s slithering movement through the crowd always gave me a thrill. Return To Form (2009) may have been their most solid record (even amid a transition of lead singers) but everyone I tried to share it with hated it. I couldn’t get into their last record much, though I anticipated and dutifully procured this new one, but I think I’ve only heard it once. The vocalist on this LP was gone even before it was released, so what’s current is already history (all this turnover could have been avoided if lead man Wayne Rogers had simply kept singing). And thus far, the only splash the album has made is having an NPR host dismiss Major Stars’ brand of guitar rock as irrelevant.
Stabbing guitars—like three of ‘em—signal the alarm of “Alert” and one thing they’ve gotten better at is containing all the big riffs in tidier packages. Their live shows could allow for a blearier focus since the sheer force was often trance-inducing, which didn’t always translate to record, but “Unlearn” is typically pummeling without losing the thread of the song. The vigor of Wayne’s heavy shredding here hardly lets on that he’s been doing it for 35 years. The title track is defined by the gentle pounding of a tom, creating a looser space—not quite Magic Hour-mellow, but definitely a more subdued mode than they usually operate in. Wayne’s pretty solo is the sole reason for the song to exist, which otherwise doesn’t justify its 11 minutes (“Sally Free and Easy” this ain’t) and I think it would’ve worked better as instrumental, but more on that in a minute.
Sexiness has been part of the equation at least since their 5th record (when Wayne chose to step away from the microphone) and while Hayley Thompson-King belts it out capably on “For Today” she’s not the screamer Sandra was, which is almost required to compete with the wall of sound. With these last two albums, I wasn’t convinced she was the right singer for MS—these politely-recorded parts in the studio would never withstand the band’s power onstage—and even on the less raucous moments (like the aforementioned “Motion Set”) she’s not assertive enough to distinguish herself. And while it feels absurd to admit that it might play into what I’m hearing, I’ve always been partial to brunettes, and it looks like the band’s got one again. But “For Today” has a nifty, almost undetectable transition to “Change Your Memory,” which wisely allows for plenty of Wayne wailing room. And finale “Fade Out” has all the epic freakout without the formlessness of some of their other mammoth jams, and they find a graceful way out of it too.
So I still have room for this in my life, though they’ve rarely taken flight on record like they do live, and the latter part of my experience with them may indeed be over. Not that there’s a market for either, but I’d welcome a West Coast tour or at least a live album with newest and hopefully lasting vocalist Noell Dorsey singing “Black Road,” “Low Grade” and some these promising post-Sandra tunes.