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Columns // Reviews 

Music columns and features reviews from through the years 


Reviews for the easily distracted

By Brian Smith


Falling in Reverse     
The Drug in Me is You

 ½ Star


Riffing: AutoTune bombast rock led by joyless chirper Ronnie Radke, the Nikki Sixx-coifed ex-con (boring: drugs, parole violation; fucked up: battery charges, outer-circle involvement in some kid's murder), once of Escape the Fate. 

Reference Points: Kohl-eyed dudes who like jock sports. White noise power-chording and ersatz emotional responses that summon images of Vegas suburbia, Warped Tour day-drunks and Hot Topic closeouts. Nice.

If You Like: What old Sixx would sound like if he were 25 years younger.

Melissa Bryan

Return of the Woman
Rock Haus Records

 3½ Stars


Riffing: This girl's hittin' it for sainthood, working a real-world gig advocating for victims of domestic violence. She was weaned on Leif Garrett, girlish fright wigs and teen-boy power riffs. 

Reference points: Best line ever: "Street walkin' cheater"! 

If you like: Overcoming overwhelming physical odds for song, the Muffs, Girls Rock Camp, Best Coast, the Zeros, girl-groups, Lou Reed's "Rock 'n' Roll," Dead Boys and bronoodlin'! ...  

Smoking Popes
This is Only a Test
Asian Man Records

 4½ Stars


Riffing: Johnny Ramone-y downstrokes buffer a croon that's not unlike Gene Clark (!?) or Morrissey. 

Reference Points: Sad as snow-covered bicycles and late-night train whistles but snaps and pops like banana bubblegum in the maw of a moody high school cheerleader. 

If You Like: Teary-eyed punk, pre-'79 Cheap Trick 45s, suburban outsider melancholy, Akaline Trio, balding dudes and bittersweet melodies over Buzzcockian riffola. Also, Herculean indie comebacks and the Clash's "Stay Free." 



Gabe Dixon

One Spark

 2 Stars


Riffing: Light, untroubled piano-guitar pop for Starbucks moms and dads whose college dorm rooms stocked Crowded House and Everything but the Girl albums. But if "Even the Rain" gets featured in a hybrid car TV ad, it'll still be a beautiful song. 

Reference Points: Dixon's absolutely in love with his wife and he's man enough to sing about it. 

If You Like: Alison Krauss, Dylan's kid, pre-fat Paul Simon, fat-era Elton John. 

Keep This Love Goin'

3 Stars


Riffing: "Here I Am" is early Beatle beauty, "Boozoo and Leona" a hit in a proper world, "The Animal Life" is pure power pop. 

Reference Points: The most respected band in the world that never sold any records; storied history now finds original piano man Terry Adams still standing. 

If You Like: Earlier NRBQ, rock shows with a lawn for sitting, Weezer, Sky, Brendan Benson, Brinsley Schwarz, Big Star, Dave Edmonds. Music no one can make anymore.


[Excerpted from here]


Reviews for the easily distracted

By Brian Smith


Worship Music

1 Star


Riffing: Yup. Like ugly meth slams in a singlewide alongside sweaty dudes old enough to know better.

Reference Points: Anthrax welcomes back poodle-headed (and Dio fetishist) singer Joey Belladonna, who sounds exactly like 1988. The hairy "Revolution Screams" is best and could scare anyone right off Yahoo's Leftist Trainspotter group. Killer kudos for the walking dead self-parody ("I'm Alive"), for the sonic altar to Judas Priest, and the wisdom to not sound all AA.

If You Like: Sword 'n' sorcerer man-play, skulls and shit ...

The Glorious    
Stories From a
Fractured Youth

4 Stars


Riffing: Surprisingly great rock balladry by punk elder Mick Rossi (Slaughter and the Dogs' teen guitar hero) and singer-designer Christopher Wicks (English Laundry). Bittersweet sentiments and chord changes, piano, organ and violins inspire longing.

Reference points: Oasis missed writing "Northern Soul," and "Help" (with Scott Weiland) pleads in its airy, decelerated Beatles makeover. Sex Pistol Steve Jones and the Cult's Billy Duffy add filth and fury to requisite rocker "Sex in China."

If you like: Ian Hunter, Billy Bragg, Ronnie Lane, Oasis.

The Kooks
Junk of the Heart

3½ Stars


Riffing: Same top-down English afternoon pop as before, but with nighttime moments of beauty ("Street lights light up my shame," etc.).

Reference points: Singer Luke Pritchard's voice can send butterfly flutters up girls' skirts, and he sounds like an innocent kid by accident, as if he's still growing into "big kid" shoes worn by pop Peter Pans like Stephen Duffy or Bryan Ferry. "Eskimo Kiss," "Rosie" and "Taking Pictures of You" stun. 

If you like: Lykki Li, dub light, Supergrass, Kinks.


Brite Futures

Dark Past


2 stars


Riffing: Be suspicious of anything sounding too happy, 'cause real songs live beyond irony, and true cute pop has a dark side. 

Reference points: Power popper "Too Young to Kill" aches for inclusion on New Girl, and brutish dance beats — kabob-skewed Giorgio Moroder or ABBA or something — better top contemporary tunesmiths at their own game. So? A dark experience on Warner Bros. (called Natalie Portman's Shaved Head) informs "Black Wedding." 

If you like: Sparks, Robbie Williams, Katy Perry, Cars and songs with sonic exclamation points! 

Morning After Girls



Riffing: Out for months now, Alone is classic Aussie in the shimmery sense, like early Church. Calling MAG shoegaze is dismissive; this is guitar pop in all of its arresting sexiness and melancholic joy. Go-to genres include psyche, pop, shoegaze, folk, ambient, glam. 

 Reference points: Cheeky nod to White Album cover art. Five lean, sartorially pleasing dudes with good, unkempt hair. 

 If you like: Ride, Church, Dandy Warhols, early Pink Floyd and Long Day's Journey Into Night.


[Excerpted from here]

Column // Teenage Lobotomy: Dee Dee Ramone says he doesn't wanna be Sedated Anymore
Dee Dee Ramone is lucky as all hell to be alive. The rickety timbre of his voice over the telephone bespeaks a man who has repeatedly cheated death. His is a sort of Bronx junkie mumble crossed with the confounded drawl of Tennessee Tuxedo's Chumley, a disquieting mix of stubborn subsistence and resignation born of years of dope damage and rock 'n' roll abuse.

It's morning in the Hollywood home that Ramone shares with his second wife, Barbara, and the day -- like most of his days lately -- starts out well. After breakfast, he plays guitar for a while, then does a bit of painting. He works out details for an upcoming Brazilian tour for his band, now called Dee Dee Ramone. Later he starts to fantasize about the Ramones getting back together. He hasn't played bass for the band since he made the widely unpopular decision to quit in 1989; the Ramones retired permanently just over four years ago after a much-ballyhooed farewell tour.


[Continue reading here] 

Column // This guy found the fountain of youth in bad art, killer psych and American road discoveries 


Steve Purdy pumps a clinched fist and rocks in his desk chair to a loud YouTube video of a Tucson epic-rock band called Ashbury. And it's as if they're transmitting mystical currents. With outward, kid-like energy, he shouts, "These guys are huge in Europe and no one knows who the hell they are in Tucson." He points out the guitar heroics of Randy Davis, a dude who looks straight out of Jethro Tull circa '74: "Just look at him! Just listen to him!" You don't even have to be a fan of Ashbury to understand their brand of sonic truth, so persuasive is Purdy's energy.


It's funny because Purdy's a ringer for your old stoner uncle who might still talk fondly of, say, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Ken Kesey and Peter Max, and he looks like pre-liver-transplant Gregg Allman. He's got a bit of a gut, and tender blue eyes, which can stubbornly take hold of your own when he talks, and long, gray-yellow hair slicked back into a ponytail, and a matching beard. But the 68-year-old Steve Purdy is beautiful, and here are a few reasons why: When he gets going he's a charming raconteur with all the eye-sparking, air-guitar-playing passion of a 19-year-old music nerd living in his parent's garage. He's also a mad collector of gloriously bad thrift-store art, and proprietor of a rising boutique reissue record label that mostly specializes in unsung, vintage psychedelic bands.


[Continue reading here] 

Column //Literary license: talking to godhead author Denis Johnson and Jim Roll about Jim Roll's latest album

How often do you hear a great record, one so good that it somehow becomes part of you, and at the same time see it slip through the proverbial commercial cracks? We all know that the creative song profession, which once provided an unusual path to renown and sometimes wealth for talented oddballs (think Jim Carroll, Patti Smith, Dylan, etc.), is increasingly about that stultifying nepotism and narcissism currently colonizing TV ads, radio, mp3 downloads and disc players.Ypsilanti resident Jim Roll is a guy whose latest record — last year’s Inhabiting the Ball, his third — is antithesis to the latter. Roll concocted a collection of songs that surpasses anything Wilco (and, yeah, the band is chosen carefully) has ever done. It’s true.Weirder is the fact that Inhabiting the Ball features lyrical contributions from literary godheads Denis Johnson and Rick Moody, with some additional help in the form of frothy liner notes from journalistic satirist Neal Pollack. Dave Eggers’ literary quarterly McSweeney’s gave Roll a hearty thumbs-up and the company helped with distribution.


Excerpt from this Detroit Metro Times column. 

Column //Billy's Blues: Storied songwriter skirts death 

On January 1, 1988, in Tucson, Arizona, Billy Sedlmayr stepped out of a stolen pickup truck and walked into a Dairy Queen. He had no gun but told the ice cream clerks he did, and they believed him. The lie yielded him $97, a sum small in proportion to the crime, certainly, but good enough to temporarily neutralize the demonic buzzards that had been circling him--the buzzards borne of human spirit mixed with certain evil powders that invariably fly whenever a junkie must make a decision without the benefit of sober rationale. 


When Sedlmayr came out of the DQ, it was surrounded. The cops had been following him for two days, waiting for him to do something big, something big and wrong; the kind of wrong that could make his usual piddling deals in Tucson barrio dope houses pale in comparison; the kind of wrong that would justify Tucson's MOU (Major Offender Unit) being called in; as if this 125-pound junkie who didn't have two pennies to rub together was a major offender.


[Excerpt from this New Times column.] 

Column // Harder and Harder: The Paybacks Hit it Again

It’s an oddly cool Thursday evening in Ferndale, and Wendy Case, dressed casually in a blue T-shirt, black jeans and brown clogs, is sipping wine on the enclosed back porch. Her patented blond-to-russet mane stops at her shoulders; her sharp-boned features and lithe frame are softened by graceful curves; she looks smaller in person, almost delicate, like a distant relative of the unconstrained, barrel-voiced chick who fronts the Paybacks.


Despite a life that has seen its share of party-favor addictions and attendant setbacks — and a voice that could peel rust from a Chrysler — you’d never guess that this woman is 40. Rock ’n’ roll either ages you like Keef or maintains a semblance of youth like Prince or Bryan Ferry. 


[Excerpt from this Detroit Metro Times column. 

Music feature // End of The Century: Guitar hero Johnny Ramone talks retirement, a career boxed set and the joy of watching horror movies in the middle of the day. 
The year is 1978Son of Sam gets life, the Pistols lose theirs and John Lennon still has his. Sandinista guerrillas attempt to extricate Nicaraguan life by overthrowing its government. John Belushi spoofs frats in National Lampoon's Animal House. We are standing in the Phoenix Veterans' Memorial Coliseum 10 rows back from the stage. Our barely teen hearts are speeding in rabid tempo of a sleepless night's anticipation. We are waiting for the band that's opening for Head East and Black Sabbath. The very band that indelibly marks our suburban resignation with a liberating spirit. A band with whose songs we have scaled tract-house rooftops, above the insufferable Yes and Zep FM frequencies of our big brothers and sisters, and all the hateful middle-school scoffs of punk-rock-bigoted students. We have come to see the Greatest Rock 'n' Roll Band on Earth: New York's Ramones. ...


[Excerpt from this New Times feature] 

Music feature // Same As The Old Boss: From Catholic school in Detroit to slinging drugs in Comptom to the top of the pop charts and spitting murder raps with Dre. And then back down down down to her childhood bedroom ...  

A waitress from Los Angeles working the lunch shift at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge in Detroit just happens to be DJ Quik’s godmother. She recognizes Motor City rapper Boss, who’s in a booth getting photographed, and introduces herself. Old home week begins. Stories of South Central neighborhoods and mutual acquaintances end with the jovial exchange of phone numbers.


Boss turns to me, offers an it’s-nice-to-be-treated-with-respect grin and sums her story: “There’s so much about my history that I can’t even rap about.”

Lichelle “Boss” Laws is all grins, her wide brown eyes reflective, optimism abundant, and her she's disarming and self-deprecating. But it all seems hard to believe: Here’s a rapper who’s scaled the depths and heights with white-light speed — from Catholic schools and ballet lessons to hawking drugs and sleeping on bus benches in Compton to ripping murderous gangsta raps in arenas alongside Dr. Dre and fielding calls from Madonna (who wanted to work with her) to a fleeting radio career in Texas. Then back down, down again — the earnings used up, debilitating hospital encumbrances and bunking with the folks in her girlhood bedroom— all in a span of a decade.


[Continue reading here]

Feature //The Sights: Don't call it a comeback

Eddie Baranek shouts suddenly from inside the house: "Did youread it?" He hops up from the couch, steps through the open door and points with his Miller beer to a pumpkin that's presiding over the front yard from its elevated perch on the porch. The singer is freshly shaved and Paul Weller dapper in a trouser-sweater combo; his neck-length blond hair is, strangely, tidy. "See what it says?" 

A squint reveals orange rind with words carved out for eyes, nose and mouth. A candle supplies backlight. 

"We're ripping on _____________," Baranek chirps. "But youcan't write that. You can't write what it says. He'd kill me.C'mon." The facial statement hilariously lampoons another "local" rock 'n' roll star and his penchant for annoying self-promotion. It's a sneering gesture, but funny as all hell.


[Continue reading here]

Feature //The Bronx: LA riff-and-clank quartet the Bronx blew straight out of the gate in a downpour of record-deal offers and foamy accolades

Together only nine months, LA riff-and-clank quartet the Bronx blew straight out of the gate in a downpour of record-deal offers and foamy accolades. After only the band’s second gig, a heady record-company bidding war ensued — the likes of which hadn’t been seen in Tinseltown since the Knack drew every shaky-handed major-label checkbook to Hollywood almost 25 years ago. And the Bronx could easily have swindled mucho major label lucre and trotted off into the sunset like the James Gang after a payroll raid on the Transcontinental Railroad. The band could have, but they didn’t. ​Instead, they chose a van and a trailer, some money for rent and gear, and, ultimately, an autonomous relationship with their label, Island Records.


The Bronx couldn’t be accused of overseeing some calculated exercise to filch maximum cash from a corporate giant; rather, the band and their manager figured a way to use a record company for the band’s needs, and not the other way around.


[Continue reading here]

Feature //The Everyothers: A very late show

You can swear up and down and carp and moan about rock being long dead, left to nestle in the top layer of the earth’s surface amid clods of petrified matter, dirt and crag; forever constrained, stuck in the ground, permanent.

Well, that’s rock. It just sits there. If you don’t watch your step, you’re liable to stub your toe. I mean, if you’re lucky.

Of course, there’s rock, and then there’s rock ’n’ roll. The latter being that big, unruly and disruptive fuck-shit-up beast that can still goad you to emotional extremes, to yap for joy, to fuck, to bitch slap your inner ogre of lethargy and inertia. And who would’ve thought that possible after 50 goddamned years of the stuff? And if it is possible, who is really doing it?

[Continue reading here]

More coming ...

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