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Major Stars - Return to Form

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Artist: Major Stars

Album: Return to Form

Label: Drag City

Review date: Jan. 19, 2010

A couple years ago Major Stars guitarist Wayne Rogers told the Chicago Tribune that one of the good things about being obscure is “never having your latest record called a return to form.” One platter since, they’ve co-opted the phrase, which probably says more about the Cambridge, Massachusetts’ attitudinal stance than their assessment of the record’s music.

If anything, the Stars are all about a consistency as persistent as ritual. In over a career that’s lasted over a decade, they’ve only undergone one major change. In 2005, Casey Keenan took over the drums, Rogers gave up the mic to Sandra Barrett, and Tom Leonard yielded the bass to Dave Dougan and joined Rogers and Kate Village in the guitar section. But while this brought a bit more velocity and swagger to the spaces between the Stars’ guitar freak-outs, it didn’t mess with the fundamental conviction in rock renewal that they declared when they named their first LP The Rock Revival.

With that belief in heavy riffs, wailing solos, and rock ‘tude has come a certain consistency; they’re never gotten introspective or gone disco, electronic, acoustic, or native, or really done anything but rock out. By doing so, they’re not re-treading old ground, they’re walking the path of faith. So while outsider observers might have perceived a bit of slippage on the last Major Stars record, mostly having to do with issues of arrangement and production, I don’t think the Major Stars believe it. The only return to form they acknowledge is the one that happens when the guitar chaos ends and the next tune begins.

And with this certitude comes a problem; how do they keep their edge, let alone get better? People who want their music to stay the same probably don’t know that the Major Stars exist, and even a worshipful fan might want a bit of variety. But absent a notion of progress, the Stars only magnify some appreciated facet of The Rock from a slightly different angle.

And this they do quite well on Return To Form. “Hunting Season” is picture-perfect cowbell rock, only without the cowbell. “Two Degrees” takes on head-in-the-wind, foot-on-the-monitor rock and finds the mixture of yearning and triumph that Bob Pollard lost in 1997. But there are also songs like “Low Grade,” which is undeniably righteous but never quite breaks through — songs where just doing what they generally do seems to be enough.

More than once Return To Form reminds me of a regular season game by the Chicago Bulls in the later years of Michael Jordan’s reign; needing something to surmount before they pull out the brilliance, they let things coast until they’re behind and then pull things out of the fire in the last couple minutes. At least that’s how it seems on “Black Point,” which marks time with a by-the-numbers blur before finding its authority in a more deliberate second half. Return To Form could use a bit more of the Major Stars’ play-off determination.

By Bill Meyer

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