Monday, May 17, 1999

Why There Were No Unicorns at the First Thanksgiving Dinner

"There was green alligators and long-necked geese, Some humpty-backed camels and some chimpanzees, Some cats and rats and elephants, but sure as you're born, The loveliest of all was the unicorn..."

I like cranberries as much as the next person as long as the next person is TV's Calista Flockhart (speaking of Thanksgiving dishes). Indeed the only personal contribution I remember making for a Thanksgiving feast was fixing all by my lonesome, a special cranberry confection with orange peels on the top. It was extra orangy and seemed to go over well with the family. Though it was a tad sweet, it was sweet in that sinfully enjoyable way. Yes it was as delectable as the sound of Dolores O'Riordan's voice is on the ears.

O'Riordan the singer of the group the Cranberries, has a voice that I would pay to hear sing the phone book. Unfortunately an interpretation of the white pages might just be more interesting than the Cranberries latest effort, Bury the Hatchet. The CD is plagued by the same thing that has prevented the group's other work from crossing the threshold from being pleasant sounding music to something more significant. The music sounds great (it's a group I'll always be glad to hear from) and it's only when you start to listen to the words of the songs that you become a little agitated. The lyrics alternate between being just plain dumb to annoyingly cloy and trite. O'Riordan has yet to learn that the secret to most of rock's best writing is to be either semi-poetic and confessional or deliberately obtuse. "I hope that you miss me. Put me down on history. I feel such a reject now. Get yourself a life. I hope that you're sorry for not accepting me, for not adoring me. That's why I'm not your wife..." Indeed.

Still O'Riordan's voice pierces straight to the heart's core no matter what she is singing. She sings the hell out of the CD's best song, the current single, Promises. The song continues the group's pattern of its best songs having one word titles (Dreams, Zombie, Linger). The bombastic blast of the band's playing is pleasantly enhanced by the impressively overwhelming range and pure emotion of O'Riordan's singing. "Oh the promises we made. All the meaningless and empty words. I prayed, prayed, prayed. Oh, all the promises we broke. All the meaningless and empty words. I spoke, spoke, spoke..." It's primal and it means something merely through its sheer sound (just like, say, Ricky Martin's songs in Spanish for one who doesn't understand the language- somehow just by the inflections and expression one is able to know what the singer is singing). The song is good enough that it makes one willing to give the rest of the CD a few more listens knowing that simply through the beauty of O'Riordan's breathtaking voice and the group's trademark melodicism, the CD will somehow reluctantly make its way into one's regular play cycle even as it occasionally infuriates. In other words, a little cranberry goes a long way, but tradition dictates that without the side dish something definitely would be missed.

The weakness of the lyric writing isn't so much about not trying, it's about trying too hard. Sometimes simple is not inherently a weakness. It's better to be direct than to be too cerebral and unemotional. Rock and roll ain't meant to be real wordy yet the best songs say something. Perhaps the group might try and learn a thing or two from a song that has been played recently by radio stations in memory of songwriter/poet Shel Silverstein, who sadly passed away this past week. Silverstein's The Unicorn, was made famous by a predecessor of the Cranberries, the Irish Rovers. The song has long been one of my favorites, having been one of the first 45's in my collection (one of the ones I listened to hundreds of times before I even learned to read). "The Lord seen some sinning and it gave Him pain, And He says, 'Stand back, I'm going to make it rain,' He says, 'Hey Brother Noah, I'll tell you what to do: Build me a floating zoo.'" In essence it is a children's song putting to music one of the Bible's best known stories. Yet like the best grown up songs it tells the complete story in a compelling way. There's a lesson to be learned somewhere behind the sing song simplicity which says more in three minutes than the NBC mini-series that aired last week, said in two nights. "The ark started moving, it drifted with the tide. The unicorns looked up from the rocks, and they cried. And the waters came down and sort of floated them away. That's why you never see unicorns to this very day." Yes it is the type of song the Cranberries would be wise to either cover or emulate. They would benefit in being more prolific and in order to do so, it might be time for them to rethink their approach.

This time around the most provocative thing about the group that has struggled with whether or not they want to be artists or stars while being both and neither, is not the music but two revealing photos of the picturesque O'Riordan, who now unblinkably reveals herself visually in the CDs artwork (not that that is a bad thing). Ultimately the group seems to be at a crossroads at sorts, trying to figure out whether or not it wants to go in a new direction or somehow get back to their roots and make some really cranberry-ish music. Garnish or main meal? The group seems to be struggling distinguishing itself somehow, forging its own unique identity and expressing its own message, from all the others out there. All the pieces are there, but Bury the Hatchet can't really be the best this group can do.

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