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WINTER ALBUM ROUNDUP : Beauty and the Bleat : Check List * * * * Great Balls of Fire * * * Good Vibrations * * Maybe Baby * Running on Empty :

February 14, 1988|TERRY ATKINSON

* * * SINEAD O'CONNOR. "The Lion and the Cobra." Chrysalis/Ensign. This debut album from 21-year-old Irish singer Sinead (pronounced shin-AID) O'Connor demands attention. The nine songs here don't just sashay up and politely ask to be heard; they bowl you over.

Sometimes for the wrong reasons. O'Connor is fond of dynamics and she loves to yell. That'd be just fine if she did so only at appropriate moments. No such luck. Also, she has a weakness for thorny art songs that work very nicely when she adds a sporadic melodic sense but collapse tunelessness when she doesn't. And when she shifts to her bleat during a failure like "Troy," the result can be deadly.

But even this LP's faltering moments are largely due to ambition. "The Lion and the Cobra" simply rages with nerve and vision and epic, unusual arrangements. Sometimes it all comes together. Best example: "Jerusalem," a soaring, strongly rhythmic track where O'Connor's assertive vocal style is at its most impressive, switching from a biting, rustic tone on the verses to the great, high wail of the chorus. "Mandinka" and "Jackie," the other songs that come closest to "rock," also reflect many of the same strengths.

O'Connor is also most pleasing at the other end of the spectrum, where she allows her voice to settle into a relatively calm mode, taking a folk-tinged form in "Just Like U Said It Would B" (at least until the bleat again enters) or, best of all, getting very low-key and spooky on "Just Call Me Joe," which also benefits from a drone-guitar drive that's more effective than the synthesizer-heavy arrangements on several other songs.

Unfortunately, the LP's lyrics are hard to understand or come across as too obscure, even pretentious. This, plus the flash and show, constructs a barrier. After several listenings one is left still wondering, "Just who is Sinead O'Connor?"

"The Lion and the Cobra" doesn't answer that question, but it certainly invites it. And it's an invitation that's hard to turn down.

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