Various Artists

Just Say Sire: The Sire Records Story

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Asking a dozen music fans about their impressions of Sire, a label founded by Seymour Stein and Richard Gottehrer in 1966, would likely yield several dissimilar responses. Sire was the label to boost American punk bands like Ramones, Talking Heads, and Richard Hell & the Voidoids, only to call them new wave in an effort to make them seem less antagonistic and more marketable. Sire licensed some of the most groundbreaking European electronic pop: the Normal's "Warm Leatherette," Telex's "Moskow Diskow," Soft Cell's "Tainted Love." Sire was the favored American label of '80s Anglophiles, importing the Smiths, Echo & the Bunnymen, and Aztec Camera, and later, prime shoegaze bands My Bloody Valentine and Ride. Sire was home to American college-radio favorites Throwing Muses, the Replacements, and Dinosaur Jr. During these years, the label also had some strays: Ofra Haza (exotic), Kid Creole & the Coconuts (festive), Barenaked Ladies (plain silly), Aphex Twin (scary silly), Madonna (big), Little Jimmy Scott (small). All of the above-mentioned artists and songs are present on Just Say Sire, a four-disc box containing three somewhat erratically sequenced CDs, one DVD, and a colorful booklet packed with photos and text. Despite the label's 40-year existence, the real theme tying the set together is a 30-year association with distributor Warner Bros., though there aren't any inclusions dating from 2000 and onward. You aren't alone if you're wondering whether or not it needed to be made. The label had the spirit of an independent, but it was hardly as stylistically focused as collectable labels like the early Rough Trade or Creation (incidentally, just two of the U.K. labels Sire licensed from). And, unless you know Seymour Stein or have followed the man's career, there's no way you could look at the track list here and sense a consistent aesthetic, though hooks were obviously the top -- if not uncommon -- priority. Part of what validates the set is that nearly every selection has some value to pop culture freaks and those who favor pop music that's a little left of center. While few music fans have actively sought out Sire releases as if the label were a cult like 4AD, plenty of them have just happened to wind up with a whole bunch, which helps make an undertaking like this rather unique. If you examine it all deeply enough, you might find yourself wanting to crawl inside Stein's head and attempt to discern how his label could have gone from something as raw and primitive as the Flamin' Groovies' "Shake Some Action" to something as polished and dramatic as Seal's "Crazy," or from something as wimpy as Tin Tin's "Kiss Me" to something as knuckleheaded as Ministry's "Jesus Built My Hotrod." As with any other label-specific box, complaints can be made about poor picks, omissions, and inclusions, but there are no atrocities (the absence of Alexander Robotnick's "Problèmes d'Amour" comes dangerously close), and the selections form a wholly representative look at a big chunk of the storied label's history. The DVD contains 20 of the label's most memorable videos, including Talking Heads' "Once in a Lifetime," M's "Pop Muzik," and Ramones' "Rock 'n' Roll High School." (Aphex Twin's "Come to Daddy" following Barenaked Ladies' "One Week" is a perversely jarring sequence, like a television channel airing a David Cronenberg film after an episode of Charles in Charge.) The booklet is almost as valuable as the music, featuring artist summaries and photos, writings from Stein and Gottehrer, and dozens of recollections and testimonials from artists who have been on Sire, artists who have never been on Sire, and many industry vets.

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