Sinéad O’Connor – Throw Down Your Arms

Throw Down Your Arms

Sinéad O’ConnorThrow Down Your Arms Keltia KMCD166 (2005)

I do respect Sinéad O’Connor.  The media likes to focus on “controversy” in her “personal life.”  Mostly that is a product of her refusal to play by the rules of the mainstream media, and they always seek to punish and discredit those people — or else feign doing so to manufacture controversy, which is always good for grabbing attention in the slimiest way possible.  But even when doing things like tearing up a photo of Pope John Paul II on television (a stunt excised from most rebroadcasts), and less than two weeks later, after Kris Kristofferson introduced her as becoming “synonymous with courage and integrity,” being booed (quite ironically!) at the Bob Dylan: The 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration, in response to which she sung/spoke/shouted a rendition of Bob Marley‘s “War” that was omitted from the CD release, wasn’t she, well, entirely right?  It’s hard to look back on the problems the catholic church has faced with child abuse coverups and not find O’Connor vindicated.  And there are other examples of her being righteously correct against an onslaught of support for self-serving and brutal exploitation.  But much of the press’ reaction to her has to do with what seems like a genuine desire to be a normal person, rather than a complete narcissist myopically dedicated to creating an outrageously artificial public persona (which seems to sustain the profit margins of said same press).  As a celebrity musician, the closet comparison might be Neil Young, especially in his later years.  Both sometimes seem too normal and well-adjusted to have survived the entertainment industry as long as they have.  Though Young never generated nearly the same hostility that O’Connor did.

Anyway, O’Connor is really a great pop singer.  That much is beyond question.  Her voice can carry a whole song by itself.  Yet, the musical accompaniment on her albums, while complete professional and lacking any obvious flaws in performance, can be stylistically rather plain.  Throw Down Your Arms, on paper, looks poised to be yet another disastrous reggae album by a white onlooker.  But — surprise! — it is actually rather well-executed.  O’Connor’s voice is refreshingly well-adapted to this style of music, bringing to bear an astute sense of drama and theatrics, without pushing that too far.  The music, produced by stalwarts Sly & Robbie, is effective, never a liability or a distraction.  The album dips a bit toward the end.  Still, while no great landmark, this album is way better than it deserves to be.

The Harder They Come Soundtrack

The Harder They Come

Various ArtistsThe Harder They Come Mango MLPS 9202 (1972)

The 1972 movie The Harder They Come starring Jimmy Cliff depicted the seedy realities and distorted dreams of impoverished Jamaicans. The soundtrack reflected some of the best music coming off the island at that time. Featuring some of reggae’s finest artists of the day and more than a few classic songs, The Harder They Come is a classic reggae record.

Artists work through their problems in song. The Melodians run with the gospel harmonies of “Rivers of Babylon” followed by Jimmy Cliff’s epic “Many Rivers to Cross.” The miserable conditions portrayed in Desmond Dekker’s “(007) Shanty Town” contemplate some of the disastrous effects of England’s colonialism. Jimmy Cliff’s “Sitting In Limbo” clings to the hope that things will change.

Getting permission for The Slickers to use the song “Johnny Too Bad,” one writer was found underground and the other on death row. Probably the best metaphor for the movie and soundtrack, The Slickers portray the distorted dreams of the man in the street. Ultra-cool posturing of the rude bwoys (hired thugs in ganja trade) in the movie turns from a means to the ends themselves. The soundtrack further stresses the straight and narrow way. “You Can Get It If You Really Want,” “Rivers of Babylon,” and “Pressure Drop” look up from the depths to the bright light of day these people believe is out there.

“Pressure Drop” by Toots & the Maytals is a highlight among many highlights on the soundtrack. The slightly mysterious lyrics brace for a stormy change on its way. Toots Hibbert can sing with the best of ‘em. His love for soul music, particularly his Otis Redding influence, provides soaring effects.

Songs blend into the storyline in the movie. Ivan, Jimmy Cliff’s character in the movie, becomes somewhat of a recording star with his song “The Harder They Come.” After a hip recording session, he visits a sound system (a traveling dance party) hosted by Prince Buster. This is a rare dramatization of the roots of hip-hop, where sound system deejays would toast (basically rap) over records.

The world still didn’t know much about reggae when this record/movie came out (with the slight exception of Desmond Dekker’s 1969 international hit “Israelites”). The high-energy ska of the 60s gave way to the simpler but more soulful reggae (by way of rocksteady or whatever you want to call the intermediate stuff). These grooves make conversion easy. The larger world was ready for reggae.

This soundtrack is worth checking out, as is the movie. It features ten classic reggae songs (plus alternate mixes of the two Jimmy Cliff songs). The many artists represented give a good cross-section of reggae styles. Though the songs are not very politically charged, they work for the movie. The unique flavor of Jamaica comes through these simple songs.

Willie Nelson – Countryman


Willie NelsonCountryman Lost Highway B0004706-02 (2005)

Oh, Willie.  Countryman is his reggae album “10 years in the making” (says the album sleeve — in reality it must be that no one wanted to release it).  The one inspired choice is a cover of Johnny Cash‘s “I’m a Worried Man,” which Cash wrote about a man he encountered in Jamaica, sung here as a duet with Toots Hibbert of Toots & The Maytals.  Otherwise, this tiresome genre exercise has nothing to offer.  “Straight” country versions of reggae songs (like he does for “The Harder They Come” here) would have worked better than Willie singing against a reggae beat.  Still waiting on Willie’s hip-hop album.