Magazine: New York Times, News Tribune
Author: David Thigpen
Irish Passion: Dolores O’Riordan’s powerful and emotional voice, combined with lyrics that offer an island of hope in a sea of ever-more-depressing music, have earned the Cranberries a niche in modern American rock.
At a recent taping of an MTV “Unplugged” show, Dolores O’Riordan, lead singer of the Cranberries, picked up an acoustic guitar and eased into the opening bars of the Irish rock band’s 1993 hit, “Linger.” The song tells of a spurned woman’s struggle to cope in the aftermath of a fractured love affair. Starting with a sweet, breathy whisper and swelling to a piercing cry, her voice evoked the despair of rejection with skin-tingling accuracy: “I’m in so deep/You know I’m such a fool for you/You’ve got me wrapped around your finger/Do you have to let it linger?”.
After just two albums and only three years on the scene, the Cranberries have developed an emotionally vibrant sound that has helped transform them into one of pop music’s most surprising new superstars.
The Cranberries blend a melody driven musical style influenced by the Australian singer Kate Bush and the Irish vocalist Morrissey with a willowy, ethereal rock reminiscent of the singer Natalie Merchant (formerly of 10,000 Maniacs).
The band has tapped into a yearning among listeners for stories that subtly affirm romanticism, idealism and possibility, three things seemingly in short supply in much of popular music today.
The Cranberries’ 1993 debut album, “Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We?,” was a sleeper hit, eventually selling 3.5 million copies. But in recent months the band’s popularity has reached critical mass.
In August it performed at Woodstock ‘94; in October it released a second album, “No Need to Argue,” which has sold more than two million copies and yielded a hit single, “Zombie,” a moving protest song about political terrorism in Northern Ireland.
Late last month, the band appeared on “Saturday Night Live,” and this month O’Riordan adorned the cover of Rolling Stone.
A big part of the Cranberries’ appeal is their refreshingly laid-back sound. In a musical market ruled by decibel-loving grunge and punk bands like Pearl Jam, Offspring and Green Day, the comparatively docile music of the Cranberries offers a pleasant escape.
Their songs are a dreamy mix of swirling guitars and graceful rhythms, often tinged with a strain of melancholy; at their core is an unmistakable songcraft that makes them inviting and unpredictable.
The four band members–O’Riordan, Mike Hogan on bass, his brother Noel on guitar and Fergal Lawler on drums–weave songs that patiently unfurl, like richly detailed tapestries, and have little resemblance to the traditional verse-chorus-verse structure of pop songs. Instead of aggressive guitar solos, the Cranberries use broad swatches of sound to make their points. Another reason for the group’s success is O’Riordan’s marvelously expressive voice, which serves as the band’s emotional center and gives compelling form to the Cranberries’ stark poetry.
She can plead, admonish, whisper or shout, all with equal flair.
“Understand what I’ve become/It wasn’t my design,” she sings on “Ode to My Family,” in which a homesick young woman reconsiders the bitter break she made with her parents years ago. “People everywhere think something better than I am/But I miss you.”
Her bewitching voice imbues even the Cranberrries’ darker musings–”The Icicle Melts,” a song about child abuse–with a sense of defiance and moral victory. Alongside the fatalistic declarations of rap and the existential angst of alternative rock, the Cranberries are as soothing and restorative as a glass of cool water.
O’Riordan, who writes most of the band’s lyrics, draws her material from everyday life from events she reads about in the newspapers. This approach gives the songs relevance and immediacy and prevents her from floating off into clouds of New Age claptrap.
In the band’s MTV concert, she sang selections from “No Need to Argue,” including “Empty,” in which an emotionally dejected traveler glimpses redemption around the next corner and beseeches the world to “say a prayer for me/give me the strength I did.”
She also performed two new songs–”Free to Decide,” a celebration of personal freedom, and “I’ve Started Remembering,” in which she struggles to glean shards of meanings from the deaths of Kurt Cobain and John F. Kennedy. Running through the Cranberries’ songs are themes of innocence tempered by reality and emerging wiser and tougher for it. To listeners who find the thrill and iconoclasm of punk unsatisfying, the Cranberrries offer the same passion without the melodrama and self-pity.
Although they are working musical turf familiar to fans of alternative rock acts like 10,000 Maniacs, the Sundays, Mazzy Star, Frente! and Lisa Loeb, the Cranberries convey a convincing emotionalism that few other bands can match.
This is largely because of the personal appeal of O’Riordan. Fans seem mesmerized by the contrast between her waifish look, her powerful voice and the direct, no-nonsense style she affects on stage–jeans, boots and simple, short, blond hair.
In the same way people were taken by Sinead O’Connor’s fierce power a few years ago, O’Riordan seems to have grabbed the public’s fancy–and the torch from O’Connor–and run with it.
In a time when there are few heroes left in the world and every day brings more bad news, the Cranberries offer a different perspective. With banks collapsing, sectarian wars raging, airliners falling from the sky, and children carrying weapons in their lunchboxes, listeners need reassurance that these problems, however grave, will pass.
The Cranberries offer no false comfort, no simplistic answers, but their music–in its buoyant optimism and its resistance to pop’s overwhelming negativism–suggests that even in the darkest moments, things are probably not as bad as they seem.