What put the Cranberries on the map wasn't the pop appeal of songs like "Linger," but the sheer pleasure of listening to Dolores O'Riordan sing.
It wasn't just the way her brogue stood out amid the other accents on the radio (though it would be hard to imagine an American making the second syllable of "linger" matter so); no, the most memorable thing about her delivery is its unvarnished emotionality. There's such a plaintive quality to her voice, such an alluring melancholy, that it's hard to hear her without empathizing with the heartbreak she sang about.
Maybe that's why the Cranberries' new album, "No Need to Argue" (Island 314 524 050, arriving in stores today), seems to have been built from her voice up. Never mind that it's Noel Hogan's guitar that generally defines the music's mood, or that Mike Hogan and Feargal Lawlor are as subtle and assured a rhythm section as any in alternative rock. All that takes a back seat to O'Riordan's warbling.
But that's as it should be, really. Despite the fact record companies like to market female-fronted combos by putting a pretty face way out front (often to the point of reconfiguring the group as singer-plus-accompaniment), O'Riordan's dominance of the album would be justified even if she weren't so photogenic.
Some of that has to do with the way she has sharpened her vocal skills since the band's first album, "Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can't We?" As before, she makes excellent use of the slight break between her upper and lower registers, using it to convey everything from a stifled sob ("I Can't Be with You") to a wail of bereavement ("Empty").
But her singing isn't quite the blunt-edged instrument it seemed an album ago. This time around, she softens and shapes the tunes in a variety of ways. "Ode to My Family," for instance, finds her decorating the melody with everything from quicksilver grace notes to tiny, yodel-like yelps, while "Twenty One" contrasts the breathy whisper of the refrain against the wordless ululation of the countermelody.
Granted, there are a few echoes beneath the surface of her singing. "Ridiculous Thoughts" will remind more than a few listeners of Sinead O'Connor -- particularly the way O'Riordan handles the phrase "Twister, aow!" -- and "Zombie" is a little too much like early Siouxsie and the Banshees to seem entirely original.
To the Cranberries' credit, though, neither song makes that debt seem especially problematic. There's seldom so much artistic ambition to these songs to make originality seem an issue; mostly, all they seem to want to put across is a strong tune and a convincing amount of emotion. Even when the songs do take on "serious" topics -- as in the anti-factionalist "Zombie" -- the general sense of the lyrics is too personal to be taken as some sort of statement.
That said, the group might consider occasionally addressing happiness in its songs. In fact, for a woman who just got married, O'Riordan seems obsessed with separation, betrayal and lost love; delete that stuff from the album, and you'd barely have enough songs for an EP.
Still, heartbreak has been quite kind to the Cranberries, so it's easy to see why O'Riordan would stick with her strengths. After all, anybody can sing happy songs.
To hear excerpts from the new Cranberries album, "No Need to Argue," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call 268-7736; in Harford County, 836-5028; in Carroll County, 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6215 after you hear the greeting.