The Voice!. Its the first thing that strikes you and that which forms the most lasting impression upon everyone who has ever heard a song by the Crash Test Dummies; lead vocalist Brad Roberts' voice. There's probably no other singing voice in popular music quite like his rich, sonorous baritone/bass, and its been the distinguishing mark of the band since their first hit "Superman" back in the early 1990's. Of course the band was more than just their lead singer, but without Roberts' round tones they would have been just another slightly ironical folk/rock group among many.
Sure their songs strayed into territory that others might have avoided quirky lyrics and a bite not normally found on popular radio. However we all know how intelligence and originality can actually be a hindrance to a career in popular music, and here again the voice is what saved them. Its mellow tones were so deceptive that it could make any song's lyrics sound unthreatening and sort of soothing. How else can you explain a song like "Androgynous" receiving airplay. Not even Canadian content rules (in order to keep their licences radio and television stations in Canada have to broadcast a certain percentage of material that qualifies as Canadian made) would have been sufficient to get tunes like that on the air without the soothing qualities of Roberts' voice.
Not being stupid people the band always seemed well aware of that fact, one merely needs to watch the video they made to accompany their contribution to a Christmas album one year, "The First Noel". A faux family scene where Papa Brad, complete with World's Best Father coffee mug, and Momma Ellen Reed sing Noel to the "children" to explain the real meaning of Christmas parodies every earnest explanation seen or heard in the best television families. Never being afraid to bite the hand that feeds them is of course what also makes the Crash Test Dummies so appealing - Roberts has been known to interrupt performances of their big hit "Mmm, Mmm, Mmm, Mmm," with a diatribe about the song being used in a French commercial for cheese: "A bunch of words viewers won't understand followed by mmm, mmm, mmm, mmm". With the release of their newest recording, Oooh La-La! on May 11th/10, Roberts has taken an approach, that intentionally or not, pokes fun at the industries obsession with technology.
He teamed up with producer Stewart Lerman, (Antony and the Johnsons and The Roaches) to create a series of songs utilizing old analog music toys. We're talking toys in the literal sense here with weird names like Optigan - an organ using celluloid discs to project the sound of other instruments playing specific styles of music like big band, country, blues and so on, to serve as an accompaniment for those sitting down to play it, and Omnichord which looks for all the all world like a plastic autoharp with keys instead of strings. Now if you think that some digitalized instruments sound artificial, believe me when I tell you that some of these old analog toys from the 1960's and the 1970's make them sound stunningly accurate. So to say I was a little worried about what Oooh La La! would sound like was a bit of an understatement. Thankfully for all of us the use of the toys was more inspirational than actual, so while their presence is felt in some cases, the songs aren't awash in tinny plink plinks.
They do seem to have translated into a new buoyancy of spirit when it comes to Roberts' song writing though. For instead of the rather ironical, if not downright cynical at times, world view that used to permeate his music, there's a lighter more optimistic tone to most of the tunes on the album. There's even an honest to goodness love song for heaven's sake as he rhapsodizes about his relationship with his wife on "And Its Beautiful". However this isn't some schmaltzy effort like you'd hear from most people, its an elegant testament to his wonder at the miracle of the nature of his relationship. Lyrics like "We turn our water into wine/ it's something we do all the time/ it doesn't cost a single dime/ And its beautiful" are remarkable for both their simplicity and their ability to convey so much with so little.
Even his song about the disappointment of a love unrealized, "You Said You'd Meet Me (in California)" isn't bitter or angry. Instead it goes to the heart of the matter by talking about the heart's longing for what didn't come true. Likening the ache of loss to the sound of a siren's call out in the ocean raises echoes of the longing any of us have felt when our love hasn't been reciprocated. Here, and in "And Its Beautiful" Robert and Lerman have made judicious use of the toys that inspired the songs through having them create an effect rather than weaving them completely into the fabric of the song. In the case of "You Said.." it becomes like a calliope from a worn down carnival or circus that wheezes plaintively through the introduction of the song sounding like the winding down of hope and the failure of expectations.
I have to assume that Roberts and Lerman also played most of the instruments on the recording as unfortunately aside from Ellen Reid there are no other credits mentioned in the promotional material as to who played what on which track. Reid does her usual wonderful job complementing Roberts' baritone with her crystal clear vocals and proves that she has the voice and character to be a front person in her own right with her lead vocals on the CD's final cut "Put A Face". While far more traditional folk fare than the rest of the disc, her vocals give it a power you'll not often hear on simple guitar strummed songs.
No matter how distinctive Roberts' voice is, without Reed's contrasting sound there would be the real risk, through no fault of his own, of monotony setting in. He's remarkable in how much character he is able to express within his range, but a baritone/bass can't express the range of emotions needed to make for a completely satisfying musical experience. The balance achieved by the two voices is what has given, and continues to give, their songs a depth of feeling and emotional honesty rare to find in popular music and the way they intermingle can send shivers running up and down your spine.
While this may not be a typical Crash Test Dummies recording, if such a thing even exists, it contains enough elements from the bands hay days to satisfy old fans while still managing to break new ground and explore different means of expression to prevent any signs of stagnation from setting in. While the novelty of the "toys" might appear to have the potential to be a distraction, they have been so successfully integrated into the tunes I doubt you'd notice unless you knew about them as they have about the same impact on a song as any modern day effect. Oooh La La! is as fine a collection of well crafted, emotionally honest pop songs as you're liable to come across anywhere this year. Even if the packaging is not quite the same as we're used to its what we've come to expect from the Crash Test Dummies.
For those who are making plans to see them on their current tour in support of Oooh La La! you'll be hearing slightly different versions of the songs than from what appears on the disc as they won't be touring with any of the toys. In fact it won't even be the full line up from the past as only Brad Roberts and Ellen Reid accompanied by Stuart Cameron on guitar will be heading out on the road. It should be interesting to hear how the songs hold up to being performed in this more stripped down setting. I doubt they'll be coming to Kingston Ontario, people only do if their tour bus breaks down between Montreal and Toronto, so if you happen to catch them in concert I'd love to hear about it.
Article first published as Music Review: Crash Test Dummies - Oooh La La! on Blogcritics.
(Originally posted May 2010)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.