I don't know how many people will like Sinead O'Connor's "Throw Down Your Arms." She does have a unique voice that has a too-many-Marlboro-Lights huskiness, and she did record the album in Jamaica, often with some of the same musicians who played on the original recordings. But, hey, it's good ol baldhead, pope-ripping Sinead, the Hillary Clinton of 90s pop music, Sinead the bisexual nun, Sinead, the media laughing stock. That crap has nothing to do with Sinead the singer, but we live in a media-mediated world.
What sells it to me on "Throw Down Your Arms" is song selection. Reggae music is, in general, rather a hard sell because it's an intensely single-driven form. It's the rare Reggae album that has more than one really good song. Reggae also recycles mercilessly. A particular riddim -- basic chord progression and arrangement -- will often form the basis of several songs by different artists, along with 'versions' which are the dub of the original, plus toasting by a DJ*. This seems to me to be commercially driven -- anything good gets recycled and done to death. While Toasting DJs begat Hip-hop, and Dub begat Remix culture, this relentless recycling can make reggae tedious.
So Sinead's album does us the service of skimming off the cream, and she sings the songs without affecting patois, informed by her own spiritual conviction. She highlights reggae's most appealing quality -- it is a devotional music, infused with a love of a God who is present everywhere in the world, religious without any organized religion. The Rastafari elders smoke vast quantities of marijuana and contemplate eternity so you don't have to.
There's no reason to stop with Sinead's versions. The originals are all songs that I've listened to and loved for 30 years. I plan on making an MP3 mix of the originals of the albums this weekend, but for the curious here's the track listing with the original recordings:
1. "Jah Nuh Dead" -- Burning Spear -- This is an a capella by Winston Rodney from the film "Rockers", originally released on the film soundtrack. Available on multiple Burning Spear compilations including Ultimate Collection
2. "Marcus Garvey" -- Burning Spear -- from the first Island album Marcus Garvey
-- perhaps the awesomest, most consistently listenable reggae album ever, and available together with the dub album on this CD.
3. "Door Peeper" -- Burning Spear -- available on the CD Creation Rebel
which is a collection of his earliest recordings for Clement Dodd's Studio One.
4. "He Prayed" -- Burning Spear, also available on Creation Rebel
5. "Y Mas Gan" -- The Abyssinians from Satta Massagana
. Lest you think that Sinead is just doing a Burning Spear cover album ...
6. "Curly Locks" -- Lee Perry from the incomparable album Roast Fish, collie Weed & Corn Bread
album. Just how nuts Lee Perry is, and how brilliantly his nuttiness translates into original music, is fully in effect on this early record, which has an antediluvean lo fi darkness to it, as though he carved his tape recorder out of ebony, and recorded to snake skins.
7. "Vampire" -- Devon Irons (produced by Lee Perry), available on Arkology
8. "Prophet Has Arise" -- Israel Vibration from The Same Song
9. Downpressor Man -- Peter Tosh, most famous version is from Equal Rights
-- a Jamaican folk song from Rastafari culture, popularized by Peter Tosh and the Wailers.
10. "Throw Down Your Arms" -- Burning Spear (again!) from Dry And Heavy
11. "Untold Stories" -- Buju Banton from 'Til Shiloh
12. War -- Bob Marley & the Wailers from Rastaman Vibration
So, Sinead is heavy on the Burning Spear, which is only fitting, as Winston Rodney is perhaps the most constistently brilliant writer in roots reggae. Interview magazine even had Rodney interview
Sinead about the album.
The other salient fact this song selection brings up is that most reggae made after the 70s is pretty crap. Drum machines and keyboards started replacing the live drums and horns that make roots reggae distinctive, largely because they make it quicker and cheaper to record. Artists who still embrace Rastafari and Roots often bring nothing new and unique to the table. The really good stuff was made roughly between 1966 and 1976 -- the global fame of Bob Marley, the embrace by major labels like Island and Virgin, the very means by which any of us white folks learned about reggae has really had a negative effect on the music. It has been decontextualized and productized, turned into a soundtrack for the hacky-sacking potheads that infest college towns. Nowadays Jamaican music is defined by looking back to the 60s and 70s -- spawning a million hippy-dippy tribute bands -- or Dancehall, which has it's moments, but is usually pretty crass and annoying.
But at least I can enjoy the original stuff that hooked me in the first place, and Sinead has put her own fresh spin on it for us. If you've never really given Reggae a chance, I envy the discovery you'll experience if you track down a few of the classics.
* in Jamaica, the DJ spits on the mic and the MC plays the records. Why this is I don't know. Plus, they have the tradition of a Selector picking out the records, and the MC actually doing the mixing. Go figure.