It took me by surprise. Listening again to "Linger" by the Cranberries, I now heard heretofore undetected bird trills. Actually, this very minor aural revelation wasn't what startled me. After numerous spins of the disc, I was used to the abrupt emergence of quirky, tantalizing sonics. The band got the most for its recording budget, I figured.

The real kick occurred the next time I played the song, when I discovered that the birds had flown the coop. What I'd thought was on the record had come from the direction of my neighbor's feeder-and-bath assembly!

I'm not sure what this proves. However, while interviewing Cranberries guitarist Noel Hogan, I commented that his band's debut platter was overflowing with subtle pleasures (as opposed to brick-in-face ones). And, by the way, what's that cool, sitarlike sound in the background of "Not Sorry," Noel?

"That's what it is," says Hogan. "It's a sample from some old record. You're actually the only person that I think's ever heard it, other than me! Even the guys in the band, even after we'd put it down, they couldn't hear it!"
More than one music buff has been taken by surprise by the Cranberries' atmospheric folk-rock sound. The band's Island Records debut, Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can't We?, was at No. 52 last week on the Billboard album chart and seems destined to crack the Top 40 soon. This is all the more remarkable for a band with roots planted in rustic, rural Limerick, Ireland, about as far away from hit factories like Nashville, Seattle or South Central Los Angeles as you can get.

"Yeah, we didn't expect the record to do as well as it has--we're really shocked," agrees Hogan, who's speaking from his Chicago hotel room, four dates into the Cranberries' second U.S. tour. (The first included rounds with The The. This time they're opening for Suede.)

"When we started, it was just a thing we did in our spare time, just kind of a hobby," Hogan says. "We didn't expect anything to happen. Even the record company didn't press up that many copies of the album. I think they printed 30,000 or something like that. And they just walked out the door." Hogan, his bassist brother Mike, and drummer Fergal Lawler took up instruments three years ago in Limerick and became--say it quickly--The Cranberry Saw Us. Initially sporting a sound described by Hogan as "all over the place, really bad," the band reached a turning point in 1991 when its singer, a male, departed.

Hogan recalls, "We were kind of stuck. We had instrumental versions of 'Linger' and 'Sunday' and we didn't want someone who'd be shouting and roaring over the stuff. We told everyone we knew, and it didn't really matter if it was male or female. Then Dolores showed up." Eighteen-year-old Dolores O'Riordan had led what could be described as a strict, sheltered life, moving in a clockwork cycle of chores, school, classical-piano lessons and church-choir duties, both singing and playing organ. No rock n' roll records in the O'Riordan household. As she told one interviewer, "I didn't get out much. I kinda had to run away."

Passing the proverbial audition, and bringing what would prove to be a unique instrument to the fold, O'Riordan became the Cranberries' centerpiece. And despite bouts with stage fright that earned her the nickname "The Girl That Turned Sideways," she ultimately charmed the pants off the British press during the band's inevitable pilgrimage to London.

Then came the usual cycle of record-company travails, management snafus, first-album production delays, a near breakup and so forth. But regardless of growing pains, the Cranberries' debut is an accomplished set for a band with a median age of only 21. A celestially rich production, courtesy of Stephen Street (Smiths, Psychedelic Furs), highlights the Cranberries' natural strengths: songwriting that is at once muscular and supple, not cobbling from any particular trend; blissed-out melodies that appeal to new-agers and alternative popsters alike; recurring throbs of guitar tremolo and reverb that lend an organic, surflike feel to the sound; and, of course, O'Riordan's vocals.

Her voice is a wonder, conveying a range of emotional nuances one would expect from a singer far more experienced. There's giddy optimism (Dreams"), escapist fantasy (Put Me Down"), moist discovery (Pretty"), ironic regret (Not Sorry") and dashed hopes (Linger"). Sometimes O'Riordan's flights even carry her toward the realm of the ecstatic and wordless, as in the yodeling dissolve at the end of "Dreams." Comparisons to countrywoman Sināad O'Connor (especially in the aggressive vibrato O'Riordan favors) are inevitable, but not unfavorable. O'Connor is not the only established icon to which O'Riordan has been compared; journalists have called her "Suzanne Vega goes Celtic," "Sade with guitars," "Natalie Merchant with balls" and "Liz [Cocteau Twins] Fraser meets Stevie Nicks." "From the very first review we got up to this day, nobody's ever decided on one person," Hogan quickly points out. "Which is the good thing. People can't pin it down." Hogan is still surprised at how quickly the public has latched onto the band. In conversation, his soft-spoken manner, which is softened even further by a gentle accent that drops the G from words like "doing" or turns "think" into "tink," can be mistaken for shyness. Ultimately, though, he demonstrates a solid confidence in his craft and a proud individualist streak.

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