Crash Test Dummies
Brad Roberts digs weirdness. That may not seem like a thundering revelation given his propensity for calibrating the realities of enlightened mallards, listless deities, traumatized children, recalcitrant superheroes and frankly, cunnilingus, over the course of three watershed albums.
Here we are in Harlem and the Crash Test Dummies' commander is utterly in his element as he hoofs down West 148th Street like some kind of miscreant tour guide. He gleefully points out a grandmother outfitted in her Sunday best yackety-yakking on a stoop, hauling on a cigarette. Noting a neighbor's tawdry brownstone lovingly gussied up with silver tinsel for Christmas, he merely chuckles, turning the corner at Broadway and converging on the crazy old dude painting the ether blue with a booming wave of obscenities.
Weird, and practically a moonscape compared to Roberts' native Winnipeg, Canada. Yet Harlem is where the bookworm baritone has chosen to throw down roots and it's here, in deepest New York City, that the Crash Test Dummies towering, colossally ambitious fourth album, Give Yourself A Hand, took shape.
"You'll notice pulling into this part of New York that there's a certain energy that's palpable," Roberts offers. "I found myself getting up in the morning, sitting in front of my computer and saying, I'm going to write stuff that rhymes. I gathered so much from just walking around the neighborhood. It is a very energized place that's very foreign to me, but its attitude started rubbing off on me, such that when I sat down to write lyrics, all this stuff just spilled out of me."
"In this one I make the momentous discovery that Elvis rhymes with pelvis. Could there possibly be a more fortuitous rhyme in all the English language?" - A Cigarette Is All You Get
OK, no sugarcoating. Here's the straight dope. Give Yourself A Hand is a departure for the Crash Test Dummies, full of midnight rhymes, dubby interludes, graffiti-splattered lyrics, muted guitars and mondo breakbeats. So much for sticking with a formula that's earned accolades and international success in Canada, America, England, Germany (like, hugely) and other enlightened outposts.
Give Yourself A Hand lays out a smorgasbord of surprises, and was born, in part, out of a songwriting retreat Roberts attended at a castle in France owned by music biz impresario Miles Copeland. Fast-rising, Canuck-born wunderkind Greg Wells was also at the retreat, and ended up co-writing (a first for Roberts) and co-producing the album.
One of the most satisfying surprises is Roberts stalking the silky, candlelit groove of Just Shoot Me, Baby with a heretofore unknown falsetto, which also make a cameo on the lead-off single, Keep A Lid On Things. Opines Roberts, somewhat worryingly, "I had always attributed my bass baritone range to my third testicle. Whence this falsetto, then? A third nipple perhaps? I search for one in vain and the falsetto remains a mystery."
Any cozy sense of normalcy fostered by more conventional Dummies pop vignettes like I Love Your Goo and Achin' To Sneeze is vaporized as Roberts - throwing down like some kind of fly white guy living in, er, Harlem - rhymes through I Want To Par-Tay. Discombobulation melts away with the arrival of Pissed With Me, a cinematic, noirish set piece propelled by a slinky internal rhythm, the testimonial hum of organ, the giddy squawk of Benjamin Darvill' s harmonica and by Roberts' coy wordplay.
"In Canada, pissed means drunk while in America, it means to be angry (as in pissed off). How could I resist this delicious double entendre?"
Given the essentially rhythmic underpinnings of all the songs on Give Yourself A Hand, one suspects bassist Dan Roberts and drummer/percussionist Mitch Dorge were ricocheting all over Los Angeles' One To One studios keeping those syncopated grooves on the move.
Then there's Ellen Reid. Always a seminal aspect of the Dummies' harmonic makeup, the keyboardist this time fronts on three songs - the somnambulant, single malt, sex-charged Just Chillin', the cheeky, iridescent, sex-charged Get You In The Morning and the gently orchestrated, drum n' bass-y, probably sex-charged A Little Something, the album's woozy centerpiece.
And despite a newfound ability to assimilate the word "baby" into his sprawling lexicon, Roberts' lyrics continue to touch on stuff no one else ever thinks to write about, like blessed euthanasia on Just Shoot Me, Baby, the quest for nasal purification on Achin' To Sneeze and auto-eroticism ahoy on the title track and elsewhere. Lest anyone be searching for obligatory Dummies worm references, please see I Want To Par-Tay. But allow yours truly a convenient metaphorical spin. Sonically, with Give Yourself A Hand, the worm has turned.
"I like to think that surely, this must be the only pop song ever written which touches on the fine tradition of that centuries-old game, pocket pool." - Just Chillin'
Meanwhile, back in Harlem, over powerful tea only a former resident of England could brew, Roberts defends his experimental use of a computer to write lyrics. He insists that while the cut-and-paste method (William Burroughs- meet the modern age!) that resulted in Give Yourself A Hand might appear to favor clinical precision over quaint, handwritten spontaneity, the opposite is true.
"The computer actually allows you to be spontaneous," he says, "you can type really fast and you can shift things around very quickly. You just cut it, paste it, read it and boom! There it is. I found it to be a very organic way of working. I wrote very quickly and uncritically."
And while he concedes that his frame of reference as a songwriter has expanded since moving to Harlem, he cautions against "over-emphasizing the black influence, because I think my history as a person growing up in Winnipeg is going to stick with me much longer than any temporary environment I might find myself in. At the same time, when I hear people walking down the street rhyming and rapping in a completely free-style way, it rubs off. The rhyming I do on the new record definitely came from that. When you start rhyming, the songs come together much more quickly. You just keep pursuing the rhyme and sooner or later you find it. So in a way, this new style of working just kind of fell in my lap like a big present."
Pundits poised and ready to holler cultural appropriation at this juncture might well remember, as Roberts patiently points out that, "rock and roll has been fed by black music since day one. It's just a fact that black music has had an overwhelming influence on white pop music since the 1950s. On Give Yourself A Hand, that influence is more overt because of my surroundings."
"With this record," Roberts adds, "there's less reliance on chord changes and melody and more on attitude and feeling. Even so, these are pop songs. They have a verse and then a chorus. They are not rap. I do not shove entire paragraphs of prose into a single verse, the way rappers do. That's not something that would flow naturally from my personality. I feel I've successfully taken these influences surrounding me, drawn them into myself and made them grist for my creative mill."
"The title says it all. And if I have to explain this one to anyone, then they aren't old enough to be allowed to listen to the record." - Give Yourself A Hand
Got it. Give Yourself A Hand is an innovative, culturally astute, wholly urban, occasionally left-field, unapologetically funky pop record dropped by Crash Test Dummies, whose peripatetic leader happens to live in Harlem. Rehearsals and touring to follow. What could be more straight forward?
It's worth noting that later on, casually huddled around beers in a Latino joint in midtown Manhattan, Roberts is still scoping weirdness on all fronts, both as a matter of course and as potential fodder for future use. He may not spin heads at 8th Avenue and 46th Street quite the way he does further afield on the island (though he is discreetly clocked as Brad Roberts, pop star, in the lobby of the exceedingly hip Paramount Hotel), but he's no less plugged into his environs, no less capable of summarily extracting the essence of a situation with a single, sweeping glance. Give Yourself A Hand merges disparate influences, but it does so with the sensitivity, confidence and ribald humor we've come to expect from Crash Test Dummies. And it rocks. So There.
Kim Hughes, Toronto, 1999
Benjamin Darvill: harmonica, mandolin, acoustic and electric guitar, and more� Michel Dorge: drums Ellen Reid: back-up vocals, piano, keyboards, accordion Brad Roberts: lead vocals, acoustic and electric guitar, songwriting Dan Roberts: bass
To be more specific, Crash Test Dummies are a five-person musical group from Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. The band's material is rather difficult to classify, having changed throughout the course of four albums. Possibly, it could be described as an unusually literate, eclectic brand of pop. Their songs are characterized by whimsical, thoughtful, and dryly humourous lyrics, creative musical arrangements, and the unmistakable prescence of lead singer Brad Roberts' distinctive voice.
Crash Test Dummies first appeared on the Canadian musical scene in the late 1980's and began to achieve commercial success with the release of their first album, The Ghosts That Haunt Me, in 1991. The album eventually reached quadruple platinum sales (400,000) in Canada, largely due to the overwhelming popularity of the smash hit single "Superman's Song", and earned CTD the 1991 Juno Award for Group of the Year.
However, the Dummies did not receive much international recognition until the 1993 release of their second album, God Shuffled His Feet. Particularly instrumental in increasing CTD's exposure in the U.S. market was the appearance of a new type of radio format: adult album-oriented alternative rock (AAA). These stations put the single "Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm" in high rotation, with the result that by mid-1994 the album had passed the platinum sales mark in the US (one million), and had also earned the Dummies three Grammy nominations and three more Juno nominations. To date, GSHF has sold more than five and a half million copies worldwide.
In 1996, the Dummies' third album, A Worm's Life, was released to mixed critical and moderate commercial success. The singles were warmly received in some markets, but nothing matched the runaway success of either "Superman's Song" or "Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm". Still, the album went platinum in Canada in less than one month.
Give Yourself A Hand, the Dummies' fourth album, was released March 23, 1999. The album showcased yet another new sound for the Dummies, as it featured Ellen Reid singing lead vocals on three tracks, and Brad Roberts singing in a falsetto on several others. The whole sound of the album was much more electronic than the previous recordings.