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 Sinad 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.
He won't let his band be pinned down on musical or geographical terms. On the inevitable "Irishness" question, he says, "When people think of Irish bands, they think of U2, naturally. And when they think of really 'Irish' Irish bands, they think of Celtic folk, traditional whistles-and-drums type of things. Which we're not. But it's probably the two influences mixed together which has given us the sound we have." As a guitarist, he won't let his playing be pigeonholed, either. He dodges the frequently mentioned surf-guitar comparison by saying, "Umm, it's mainly just how I play. I taught myself. I use a lot of open chords and things because I like nice, sweet chords. Johnny Marr [Smiths], he's probably my favorite guitarist. And Pete Buck from R.E.M."
The Cranberries' personality is as disarming as the music itself. They are young, good-looking in a freshly scrubbed manner, and eager to see the world on the record company's ticket.
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At the same time, the band isn't blind to the ways and wiles of the music industry. The self-effacing album title should be clue enough. (A lot of bands are around that are big, but they're not particularly good bands. So, if they can get away with it, then we can!") On tour for most of 1993, they're stockpiling songs, mostly worked out at sound checks, and making sure that the second album doesn't skid toward a sophomore slump. Further, Hogan bristles whenever the suggestion arises that playing the industry game means sacrificing songcraft.
Says Hogan, "If you're in a band, you're in it to make music. Write decent songs, play the best you can. And it shouldn't really matter what you look like if it's good or bad. It should depend on whether you write a good song or not. When we first started, we'd only gotten about ten songs and [the British weeklies] wanted to put us on the cover, but we realized that if we did that, it would have put an awful lot of pressure on us.
"We're happy with what the album has done now, and even if it didn't go up any further in the charts, that would be fine with us. We don't want to be one of these bands that is here today and gone tomorrow. We'd rather take it slow."
If the album continues selling at its current clip, however, the future can accelerate tremendously. I ask Hogan if he ever thinks about where he'd like to be in five years' time.
"Sometimes you think that you could be here today and then be dropped. That's the chance you take in this business. But I'd like to think in five years that we'd still be going and writing good songs, which is the main thing. If people do grow old of us, get sick of us, it probably just wasn't meant to be. We had our 15 minutes of fame.