Some Digging Required
The Cranberries’ new 10-year career retrospective, Treasure Box, consisting of their first four albums, with added bonus tracks, is not only a chance for die-hard fans to complete their collections (as well as dole out more of their hard-earned cash); it’s a cautionary tale of how not to go about your artistic business in today’s music market. The Limerick, Ireland band, who are the second best-selling Irish act (behind U2, and with those pesky Corrs nipping at their heels), were a surprise success in 1993, but since then, they went on to gradually put the kybosh on their album sales, simply by taking themselves far, far too seriously. Their popularity peaked with the release of their second album in 1994, but too much bombast and no new musical ideas led to slightly slower sales since then, and by the time their fifth album came out last fall, it was met with a rather indifferent reaction from the record-buying public.
In 1993, The Cranberries came out with the innocuous charmer Everybody Else Is Doing it, So Why Can’t We?, produced by Stephen Street (The Smiths), sounding like an Irish version of The Sundays, who were flirting with potential success with their own brand of quiet, gentle, shimmering guitar pop. Led by singer Dolores O’Riordan, The Cranberries served up the same dish, but their version was dominated by O’Riordan’s lilting Irish-accented voice, sort of like a less-nasty Sinead O’Connor. “Dreams”, a gorgeous, dreamy song that features Neil Hogan’s Johnny Marr-like, ringing guitar, was released as the first single off the album, but the real success didn’t happen until the mellow, and equally catchy “Linger” was released months later. All of a sudden, The Cranberries were a from-out-of-nowhere sleeper hit, and a household name. The rest of Everybody Else is Doing it, So Why Can’t We? holds up rather well, in songs like “Sunday”, “Pretty”, “Wanted”, and “How”. Not overly spectacular, but full of promise, with only a couple of annoying glitches: “Not Sorry”, a silly vocal exercise for O’Riordan, and “Still Can’t . . .”, with its unintentionally funny lines like, “Maybe if you could see beyond your nose, your nose, your nose . . .” The Treasure Box version of the CD has several ordinary b-sides, as well as a good remix of “Pretty” from the Prêt a Porter soundtrack, and a strange, fuzzed-out remix of “How”. This debut album was a decent debut, and the future looked great for the band.
With the release of No Need to Argue in 1994, The Cranberries hit the big time, going seven times platinum in the U.S. alone, thanks primarily to the radio success of the loud, distorted single “Zombie”. On that track, O’Riordan came out of the shadows of the band’s signature dreamy sound, and declared that She Had Stuff To Say. The music remained catchy, but her lyrics were amateurish at best. “Zombie” was, on the surface, a good song, but lyrically, it was a different story, as O’Riordan attempted to write another “Sunday, Bloody Sunday”, but only managed lines like, “With their tanks and their bombs/And their bombs and their guns.” The Cranberries always excelled when they kept things relatively simple, and No Need to Argue‘s first five songs, including “Ode to My Family”, “I Can’t Be With You”, “Twenty One”, “Zombie”, and “Empty”, got the album off to a very good start, but from then on, it got spotty real fast. Angry missteps like “The Icicle Melts”, and flaccid ballads like “Dreaming My Dreams” and “Everything I Said” fell far short of the standards the band had set for themselves. “Ridiculous Thoughts” and the ambitious “Yeats’ Grave” made up for it a bit, but almost half the album is mediocre. The bonus material on the disc includes a very good, restrained cover of The Carpenters’ “Close to You”, and a dreadful, seven-minute remix of “Zombie”.
1996 saw the release of To the Faithful Departed, and sadly, O’Riordan’s outspoken lyrics were spiraling out of control on what is easily the band’s worst album. Gone was Street’s artsy production; the band opted for the more heavy sounds produced by former Bon Jovi producer Bruce Fairbairn. “Salvation” is laughable, a ham-fisted anti-drugs rant that is as abysmal as Nancy Reagan’s Just Say No campaign in the ‘80s (“To all those parents with sleepless nights / Tie your children to their beds, clean their heads”), while “War Child” and the melodramatic “Bosnia” (complete with a cringeworthy childrens’ choir) failed to link touching melodies with poetic lyrics. The ridiculous “I Just Shot John Lennon” sets a new low in bad taste, as O’Riordan bluntly describes the ex-Beatle’s assassination (“With a Smith & Wesson .38 / John Lennon’s life was no longer a debate”), complete with the disturbing sound of gunshots at the end of the song. “Hollywood”, “When You’re Gone”, and “Free to Decide” are the best songs on an otherwise dreadful piece of work. As for bonus tracks, the CD has the band’s touching tribute to Denny Cordell, who originally signed the band in 1991 (“Cordell”), the odd pairing of O’Riordan’s duet with Luciano Pavarotti on “Ave Maria” and the straightforward cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way”, and the surprisingly good “God Be With You”, from the soundtrack for the film The Devil’s Own.
Bury the Hatchet, released in 1999, marked a bit of a return to form, as The Cranberries ditched the generic Alternative Rock sound in favor of more relaxed melodies. O’Riordan’s bombast is still prevalent on songs like the anti-tabloid press rant “Loud and Clear” (“Never could impress you / Even if I tried . . . Hope you get a puncture / Everywhere you ever drive”), the anti-radio rant “Copycat” (“Everyone wears the same clothes now/And everybody sounds the same”), and on the anti-child abuse rant “Fee Fi Fo” (“How could you get satisfaction/From the body of a child, you’re vile, sick”), and things get a bit silly on “Desperate Andy” (“Desperate Andy / Isn’t it dandy” . . . oh, brother), but Bury the Hatchet is the band’s most consistent album since their debut. “Animal Instinct”, the great “Promises”, O’Riordan’s song for her son, “You and Me”, the lilting “Just My Imagination”, and the loud (effectively loud, this time) “Delilah” mark a fresh start for the band. The odd, but happy shuffle of “Baby Blues” and “Sweetest Thing” are the best of the CD’s bonus tracks. The Princess Di tribute “Paparazzi on Mopeds” is not a highlight, and is best avoided.
Guitarist Noel Hogan, bassist Mike Hogan, and drummer Fergal Lawler have proved to be a capable backing band for O’Riordan over the years, but it’s a shame their ability always had to take a back seat to their singer’s caterwauling. The Cranberries have proven over and over that they’re a good band when they simplify their sound and don’t go off on Band With A Message tangents. Treasure Box will please longtime fans of the band, but I feel it looks a bit too hastily packaged, and sorely lacks extensive liner notes befitting a box set, but like The Cranberries’ entire career so far, it has its pleasant moments here and there. You just have to find them.
On their 2001 album, Wake Up and Smell the Coffee, they went back to producer Stephen Street, and it looks like they’re willing to settle down and play the same stuff that got them famous in the first place, but now it makes you wonder if it’s relevant anymore, if they’re sick of taking chances and just don’t want to mess with the formula. Perhaps it’s better that The Cranberries focus on being a good little band, instead of a mediocre huge band. I only wish someone told them this in 1994.