U2 is named Artist of the Year and Band of the Year in both readers' and critics' polls in the new issue of Rolling Stone, ending Bruce Springsteen's four-year domination. The record industry is now trying to launch an "Irish Invasion" in hopes that the glory of the world's most popular rock band will rub off on other Irish rock acts. Only a few have much in common with U2's music, however.
Cry Before Dawn and Cactus World Report have pursued the same anthemic-rock as U2, though not as well as Scotland's Big Country or Wales' the Alarm. Sinead O'Connor, Clannad and Bob Geldof have each collaborated with members of U2 in the past, but their new albums have more in common with the pompous, calculated art-rock of Genesis and Kate Bush. The Pogues' punk-rock approach to Irish folk music has little in common with U2's polished Euro-rock, but they've finally grown up enough to release their most listenable album yet.
Cry Before Dawn: 'Crimes of Conscience'
The Dublin quartet Cry Before Dawn makes a most impressive debut with "Crimes of Conscience" (Epic BFE 40989), which resembles the restrained tension of U2's "The Joshua Tree." The strong melodies, sometimes played on Brendan Wade's tin whistle or uilleann pipes, betray a more than passing acquaintance with Celtic folk music. Tony Hall's lead guitar lines are so lyrical they often seem like a second voice behind Wade's powerful lead vocals.
The songs, credited to all four musicians, are vaguely mystical meditations on such abstractions as "The Seed," "Flags," "White Strand" and "Stateside Europe." These concepts are never well defined and are never placed in a concrete context, so the songs end up saying a lot less than they intend to. This amorphousness is not helped by a rhythm section that doesn't rock nearly as hard as it might.
The passion of Wade's vocals and the pleasures of the melodies make this a most likable album nonetheless. And one song holds out the promise that this band may yet aspire to greatness. "Girl in the Ghetto" has the kind of down-to-earth lyrics that the rest of the album lacks -- the singer recognizes the potential in a young girl that poverty will leave unfulfilled and realizes that he can't fulfil it for her. This tale inspires a spectacular performance: Wade's keening voice and Hall's parenthetical guitar phrases both seem caught between hope and frustration, and a forlorn pipe solo gives way to the resurgent, rocking optimism of the tag.
Sinead O'Connor: 'The Lion and the Cobra'
Sinead O'Connor sang the only vocal on the sound track album for "The Captive" by U2's the Edge, and her debut album, "The Lion and the Cobra" (Chrysalis BFV 41612), has risen to the top of the U.S. college radio charts. This bald, 20-year-old Dubliner has an exceptional voice, capable of a confidential Suzanne Vega whisper or a hair-raising Annie Lennox wail.
Unfortunately, she applies this rare voice to original songs that seem arch and artificial. Unlike Vega or Lennox, O'Connor never creates the necessary illusion that the singer is a real person revealing real emotions. Instead, she sounds like a self-conscious artist constructing a work of art. The music seldom flows -- it seems hammered together, experimental effect by experimental effect.
O'Connor's clumsy use of mythological images and her histrionic oversinging exacerbate each other on the European hit "Troy." She plays her own rhythm guitar tracks, and her sturdy riffing has made the record's most likable song, "Mandinka," a dance hit. Far more typical of the album, though, is the funereal solemnity of "Never Get Old" or the facile mysticism of "Jerusalem."
U2's Bono sang an exciting duet with Maire Ni Bhraonain on Clannad's last album, and on its new album, "Sirius" (RCA 6846-1-R), the band's lead singer has changed her name to Maire Brennan and she duets with Bruce Hornsby and Journey's Steve Perry. As these changes might indicate, the music is more ordinary too.
"Sirius" was produced by Jackson Browne associates Greg Ladanyi and Russ Kunkel, and they have reduced this once remarkable Irish folk band to comparisons with Renaissance, that pedestrian British art-rock band that also trapped a strong female voice in hackneyed versions of fairy tales.
Every time Brennan's gorgeous voice or her brothers' Celtic folk instincts threaten to overcome the bland lyrics with credible feeling, the aptly named Robbie Blunt crushes them with a guitar solo or a heavy-handed synthesizer arrangement swamps everything like a John Williams sound track. Only "Many Roads" escapes the producers' overkill.
The Pogues: 'If I Should Fall From Grace With God'
After the precious artsiness of O'Connor and Clannad, the Pogues' frank irreverence is most welcome. Steve Lillywhite, who produced the first three U2 albums, produced the Pogues' latest, "If I Should Fall From Grace With God" (Ireland 7 90872-1), which lifts the band from novelty status to a new credibility. Where they were once renowned for their drunken thrashings of traditional folk songs, the Pogues have now matured to the point where they can offer strong original material and impressive musical performances with the same old edge.
Lead singer Shane MacGowan has finally gained some control over his raspy voice, and he has written better songs than those on any of the other recent Irish albums. The title song is a brave mocking of death with the terse epigrams of a folk song, and the Pogues play it on acoustic instruments, but they push the song with the raucous impatience of rock 'n' roll. Under Lillywhite's sure hand, they test the limits of control without actually falling apart, as they might have in the past.
The same dry wit and reckless energy inform MacGowan's songs about a horse track victory party, a sleeping child, an ex-lover and a host of ghosts. As with any true Irish album, this one includes a couple of immigrant songs, but the Pogues wisely avoid any hint of cheap nostalgia on the Randy Newman-like "Thousands are Sailing" by guitarist Philip Chevron and the Tom Waits-like "Fairytale of New York," which MacGowan sings with Kirsty MacColl.