Hooking up with a Limerick trio (guitarist Noel Hogan, his bass-playing brother Mike Hogan and drummer Feargal Lawler) that had been backing a different singer under the name the Cranberry Saw Us, Dolores O’Riordan became the frontwoman and lyricist for the rechristened Cranberries. Drawing on the folky traditions of her nation’s music, the Irish singer/guitarist informs the band’s music with old-school melodies, a breathy Gaelic lilt and gasping yodel-like yelps. If O’Riordan has nowhere near the artistic reach or vision of Sinéad O’Connor, don’t tell her that.
As the band’s success has grown, so have O’Riordan’s creative ambitions and vocal confidence. The dreamy love ballads (all but three co-written with Noel) that fill Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We? (produced by Smiths collaborator Stephen Street) are rendered with gentle semi-acoustic allure, casting the group as a weak Irish response to England’s Sundays. O’Riordan sings with shy grace but little assertive energy, as the plush arrangements of the driven “Dreams” and “Linger” (complete with dancing strings and cooing backing vocals) glow with a comforting blend of warm folk and pop. Two lesser songs, “Pretty” and “Waltzing Back,” reveal the edge and latent strength of her voice, while Hogan’s location of his fuzz pedal in “Not Sorry” suggests another side to the Cranberries. But most of the album glides on easy-listening gear with scant variety in the arrangements, writing or delivery.
The 22-year-old O’Riordan’s presence is far bolder and more compelling on No Need to Argue; she sings out, employing a more pronounced brogue and mannered aggression that makes it clear which countrywoman’s records she’s been listening to. (The hushed title track, sung over nothing but a bit of organ, adds credence to that supposition.) She also asserts her creative domination of the band. Besides adding keyboards and electric guitar to her instrumental responsibilities and taking care of all the string charts, she wrote half the songs herself, leaving Hogan only shares of the remaining musical credits. Broadening her sights to offer a condescending and diffident “Ode to My Family” (“My father, he liked me, does anyone care?”), passionately decry man’s inhumanity to child in Northern Ireland (“Zombie”), celebrate a literary treasure (“Yeat’s Grave”) and ask, in “Empty,” if “my identity has been taken,” O’Riordan goes out on a lyrical limb and ends up sounding self-conscious, self-obsessed and more than a little clumsy at times. The fuzz-rocking “Zombie,” which became a hit single, does follow a powerfully atmospheric descending minor-key course, but her endless repetition of the title is maddening; “Ridiculous Thoughts” has a pretty bed of strummed guitars, but a multi-tracked O’Riordan alternately wails wordlessly like Enya and sings lyrics through clenched teeth. The liner notes thank “all those who enjoyed and understood our debut. Here’s hoping you will understand this one.” Too bad the record doesn’t come with a money-back guarantee for those disinclined to the indulgence of such arrogance.
The CD-ROM Doors and Windows includes three alternate versions of “Zombie,” a live version of “Dreams” and three previously unreleased tracks.
Regressing at a frightening pace, aided by Aerosmith producer Bruce Fairbairn, the Cranberries follow the stylistic lead of “Zombie” like a treasure map and make like a fired-up rock band for most of To the Faithful Departed, an ineffectually loud and risibly simpleminded joined-in-progress chronicle of the world’s tragedies. Armed with heaps more commercial clout than creative sense (never mind anything like insight), O’Riordan comes off like a ignorant young idealist staring in indignant disbelief at a video entitled History Since 1960. Considering the dream factory of “Hollywood,” she announces, “The greatest irony of all/It’s not so glamorous at all,” as if she had stumbled onto a blinding discovery. Her lyrics about the deaths of public figures are no less insipid, and bizarrely backdated to boot: “I Just Shot John Lennon” sounds like the event was recent news to her, while Kurt Cobain and JFK are namechecked side by side in “I’m Still Remembering.” “Free to Decide” contains the revelation that “There’s a war in Russia/And Sarajevo, too,” and leaves it at that. (The song “Bosnia” does little to elucidate the Cranberries’ view of this complex conflict.) The racing “Forever Yellow Skies” builds to a repeated refrain of “I’ll be forever holding you re-spon-si-ble” without providing the faintest hint of who or what’s got her so agitated. Even romance (“When You’re Gone”) is reduced to childish black-and-white terms. O’Riordan’s woeful lyrics might not be such an impediment if the music provided some distraction, but the amped-up redundancy — which drives the hook of “Salvation” into the ground — is no use at all. The only notable innovations (notwithstanding the ponderous strings that underscore the lachrymose sentimentality of “War Child” and the nostalgia of “The Rebels”) are the band’s absence of effort, imagination and subtlety.