Three reviews

Sinéad, Sire and Star (Big, that is)


Sinéad O’Connor
Throw Down Your Arms
“That’s why there’s chocolate and vanilla”

Sinéad O’Connor has come out of her way-too-early, self-imposed retirement to bring us an extraordinary album of covers – nothing like her first covers album, 1992’s lush (and critically-panned) Am I Not Your Girl, but an all-reggae album paying tribute to the likes of Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Lee “Scratch” Perry and Burning Spear. 

This stirring album, released October 4th, begins with an a cappella cover of Burning Spear’s “Jah Muh Dead.” As the album progresses, from “Marcus Garvey” (another Burning Spear cover) to Lee Perry’s “Vampires” to Peter Tosh’s “Downpressor Man,” you’re not only reminded of what impressed us about Sinéad O’Connor back in 1987 with her masterpiece The Lion and the Cobra, but also struck by the way this native from Dublin, Ireland, has successfully pulled off a strong reggae album most Irish singers wouldn’t even attempt, or could. Then again, Sinéad O’Connor is not like most singers, Irish or otherwise.

I think what impresses me most about this album is her dedication to putting together an authentic reggae covers album. Throw Down Your Arms is not only self-released; it was recorded at Tuff Gong and Anchor Studios in Kingston, Jamaica, features many respected Jamaican musicians and was produced by the legendary Sly and Robbie. 

The album closes with Bob Marley’s “War,” the song she performed so many years ago on Saturday Night Live (the Pope picture incident) that sadly cost her too many fans. Perhaps she is now at peace with that 1992 performance. This is an album I hope folks who once loved Sinéad O’Connor will throw their arms around.


Big Star
In Space

Fans of this influential ‘70s band will feel like they are In Space listening to this album! This is Big Star’s first studio album in over a light year (30 years to be exact). 

Alex Chilton — first known as the vocalist of the #1 single “The Letter,” by the Box Tops, in 1967, later for 10 (mostly praised) solo albums (as well as being the subject of a 1987 tribute song by The Replacements) — is back with original Big Star drummer Jody Stephens. The two have teamed up with The Posies’ Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow on one of the most delightful – and highly anticipated – records of the year. 

Let’s back up, though, to 1990, when Rykodisc released three Big Star-related albums (including their last studio album, 1978’s Third/Sister Lovers, and deceased founding member Chris Bell’s solo album, I Am the Cosmos). Little did Ryko know that by releasing these albums, they would spark renewed interest in a band that had split up 15 years earlier. Because of that renewed interest, Chilton and Stephens decided to get back together again for a one-time concert. 

With Chris Bell gone, and with original bassist Andy Hummel out of the picture, Auer and Stringfellow (both big fans themselves) were recruited to perform in this one-time incarnation of Big Star. The response from that concert (and its subsequent recording Columbia: Live at Missouri University) was so positive that the foursome have continued to tour (albeit occasionally) for the past several years. People are still raving about their performance at the 2004 South By Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas. 

Soon after that gig, Chilton took some songs he’d written and the new incarnation of Big Star recorded this new album for Ryko. From the opening chords of “Dony” to “Lady Sweet” (which sports a retro vocal style not unlike that used by Matthew Sweet or Elliot Smith) to the exciting-but-short “Mine Exclusively” (my favorite song on In Space), it’ll seem like you’ve been transported back to the music of the late 60’s or early 70’s. This 12-track reunion-of-sorts could keep fans content for another 30 years.


Various Artists
Just Say Sire: The Sire Records Story
Sire / Rhino

As a huge fan of Sire Records since I first heard “Pop Muzik” back in 1979 (by M, the one-hit wonder who is really Robin Scott), I was truly enthralled when I found out the resurrected Sire Records (re-teaming with Warner Bros. in 2003) and Rhino Records were putting together a Sire retrospective. Sire formed in 1976 with future Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Seymour Stein (inducted this year) at the helm. 

Sire Records is the record label that brought you punk, rock, alternative, new wave, alt-country, global music…and Madonna. Just Say Sire is THE definitive collection highlighting music from the label’s first 20 years, including Madonna’s first single, “Everybody” (a natural choice as the set’s opening song), and also featuring the likes of English Beat, Erasure, Soft Cell, Yaz, Depeche Mode, Jonathan Richman, Madness, Tom Tom Club, Ofra Haza, Brian Wilson, Everything But The Girl, Seal, The Cult and k.d. lang – and that’s just part of what’s on the first disc! On the other two discs (61 songs featured altogether on the box set), you’ll also find favorites from The Ramones (“Blitzkrieg Bop”), Modern English (“I Melt With You”), The Replacements (“Alex Chilton” – hey, didn’t I already mention this?), “Burning Down The House” by Talking Heads and the still-inspirational “Shake Some Action” from The Flamin’ Groovies (from 1976 for those keeping track).

The Sire family list of artists on this set just keeps going – The Smiths, Morcheeba, The Cure, Echo & The Bunnymen, Aztec Camera, My Bloody Valentine, Deborah Harry, Paul Westerberg, Wilco, The Pretenders, Uncle Tupelo, Throwing Muses, Book Of Love, Lou Reed, Ministry and rapper-turned-actor Ice-T. 

In addition to fun songs like Plastic Bertrand’s “Ça Plane Pour Moi” and the Ritchie Valens cover of “Come On Let’s Go” by The Paley Brothers and by The Ramones, there is a bonus DVD featuring 20 memorable videos from Sire artists, including the aforementioned “Pop Muzik” by M, “Rock ‘N’ Roll High School” from the Ramones, Madonna’s (then) controversial “Like A Prayer,” the always-fun-to-watch video from Talking Heads, “Once In A Lifetime,” and other videos from The Cure, The Cult, The Pretenders, Depeche Mode, Belly and the Pet Shop Boys.

Just Say Sire: The Sire Records Story features a beautiful 66-page booklet that is one heluva tribute to founder Seymour Stein, and highlights just the first part of the story. New Sire recording artists like Regina Spektor and The Futureheads are ensuring that this next part of the Sire Records story continues to allow Sire to be “the little record label that (really) could.” 

I think Madonna summed it up very well: “I was so broke that I had been eating on a dollar-a-day budget – so when (Seymour) promised me a recording deal for two singles ‘and we’ll see how it goes,’ needless to say, I jumped at the prospect, thrilled to be on the same label as The Pretenders and the Talking Heads. Who knows, if I didn’t meet Seymour Stein, I might still be a broke dancer living in Hell’s Kitchen.”

So, raise your glasses, everyone, raise them up high to Seymour Stein, who, because of Sire, will always be music royalty in my book.


— Ron Raymond Jr.

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