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Major Stars - Mirror/Messenger

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Artist: Major Stars

Album: Mirror/Messenger

Label: Drag City

Review date: Nov. 26, 2007

How many bands, off the top of your head, have made it to six albums of original material and managed to remain captivating throughout? This was a question posed by one of my colleagues via email some weeks back, and as expected, it got the sort of response that was expected: a dismissal at first, then some difficulty in actually compiling the list itself. Singles and EPs didn’t count, and though the definition of those formats may vary, we all have a pretty good idea of what is a full-length album, and what’s padding. Also, legacy artists – the Beatles and Rolling Stones and Black Sabbaths of this world, artists who’ve been respected and loved by millions – simply didn’t count. I don’t agree with that ruling, but it did make this challenging proposition that much more tricky.

In these confines, the notions of success via money, label support, and a massive, dedicated fanbase do not often come into play, and we’re looking down at artists who have had to make it however they could. The time it takes to foment worthwhile ideas, write, record, secure release, and in most cases tour on one album, is typically anywhere up to two years. But a lot can happen in that time, especially when interpersonal and financial pressures start to compress the goodwill that helped to kick the band off in the first place. This is likely the reason why you don’t often see too many young artists surpassing three albums, or at best, four. Anyone playing within the confines of a set genre, without some sort of genius or common touch in songwriting or some aspect of the performance, will learn fairly soon that there’s not much to be said after a certain stage, and oftentimes bands do all the work of implosion on their own, to say nothing of label woes in these troubled times we live in. The winners learn how to adapt, how to channel their efforts to the most powerful effect they can withstand. Making six below-ground albums that hold up over time just isn’t something that happens all that often. Taste being subjective and all, there ought to be an award for those who succeed.

My theory on how Major Stars, a psychedelic rock band from Cambridge, Mass., had followed no other goals than a continuous refinement of a specific sound, expired upon the publication of this review. Founders Wayne Rogers, Kate Biggar, and Tom Leonard remain in the lineup, but Rogers, whose deep voice took some getting used to, no longer sings, and Leonard, a guitar hero in his own right, is now in on third guitar. An entirely new rhythm section of Dave Dougan (Life Partners) on bass and Casey Keenan (Carlisle Sound) on drums is in play, and the new vocalist, Sandra Barrett (L.A. Drugs) spends most of her time off the stage, mixing it up in the crowd.

These changes have only a cosmetic impact. The biggest difference, unsurprisingly, is Barrett’s vocal presence, her brassy, sweetly vibrating alto cuts straight through the Stars’ macadam wall of guitar. Past efforts with this lineup (two singles and 2006’s album Syntoptikon) were exploratory efforts, rockin’ hard in their own right but still coming to grips with what most would consider an unwieldy lineup. But Mirror/Messenger is here now, and it’s the lineup that seems to cause the most strain on quality, at odds with itself in the worst places for a band like this to slip up. The production on this effort is slapdash and poorly mixed, and one could expect this from a band working with a limited budget, but the tradeoffs made in their sound keep certain elements of the band in check, ultimately for the worse. This is painfully evident during the first side of the album, where a battle for headroom and balance of far too many elements neuters the poppiest and most direct set the band has produced yet. Opener “No More” starts with Barrett’s vocals so far up in the mix that the onslaught of guitar is compromised. “Half Centered Half Sane” and “Portable Freak Factory,” the latter of which was released as a stellar single earlier this year, fall flat right behind, and though it’s hard to explain just why (they’re great songs in their own right), the album’s opening statements crumble timidly. Part of it is undoubtedly the limited sonic space allowed in the recording. Having three guitarists is a brilliant idea if it can be properly executed and captured. The combatants here have no problem expressing themselves, and rhythm guitar still comes in loud and clear while others step out for solos or duels. But the rhythm section sounds muddy and undercooked underneath it all, never permitted the space to fill out the sound. Things don’t really get moving until five songs in, where the performances and capture both stand out in a far more satisfying manner, and the band sounds more comfortable in their space. The closing title track is a high point in the Stars’ career thus far, almost 10 minutes of constantly changing, hard-riff psych slaughter, and “East to West” recaptures the stately grime of earlier material, while “Can’t End Today” proves that the group is more than capable of adapting to the challenge of the three-minute pop song, even if you have to struggle to pick the drums out of the mix.

If you took the second half of Mirror/Messenger and slapped it on the back of the group’s 1998 one-sided debut Rock Sounds of People, then yes, this would be a band that hit the mark mentioned in the introduction. But it’s troubling to think that there couldn’t have been a better representation of the Major Stars than this album’s lackluster opening performance, and even more so that, thanks to technology and resources, they almost made it to six.

By Doug Mosurock

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