On October 26, 1993, Crash Test Dummies released their sophomore album. The excellent and underrated God Shuffled His Feet turns 25 today. I listened to this album endlessly throughout the ’90s, though most people I talked to about it only knew “Mmm, Mmm, Mmm, Mmm,” the song that saddled them with one-hit wonder status. It’s a great song, but there is so much more to this band.
When I wrote about their folk-rock debut, The Ghosts That Haunt Me, last year I mentioned that the band had, after a quarter century, become a de facto Brad Roberts solo project, that the rest of the band had sort of faded away and it was just the lead singer and songwriter who was keeping things going. And he’d continued releasing new albums, too, right up through 2010’s Ooh La La! though we haven’t heard any new music in the past eight years.
Apparently, though, Brad decided to put the band back together, as they’re currently in the middle of a North American tour and I’ve got tickets to see them in Boston next month. Part reunion, part nostalgia act, they’re touring the 25th anniversary of God Shuffled His Feet and playing the entire album, along with selections from some other releases. I couldn’t be more excited – the first time I saw them live was almost 25 years ago, right after this album was released!
The first thing anyone recalls about this band is Brad’s voice – that deep, rich baritone that feels like it could cause new faultlines if it were played loud enough. For me, though, the band has always been about the lyrics. While their first album was a little more conventional, on God Shuffled… Brad really started to embrace his taste for whimsy and oddity in his songwriting. In addition to the daily terror that is going to school if you’re a little bit different (in the classic “Mmm, Mmm, Mmm, Mmm”), he touches on topics like being cool enough to hang out with real artists (What if the artists ran the TV / All the ads would be for fine Scotch whiskey), animal instinct (How does a duck know which direction south is / and how to tell his wife from all the other ducks?), getting distracted during sex (When I kneel before your bounty / Sometimes I wonder if there could be really UFOs that come from other planets), and unexpectedly encountering your ex after a bad break up (Running into you like this without warning / Is like catching a whiff of tequila in the morning). He even goes on to wonder if his local psychic can see him naked in her mind’s eye.
But somehow this lightheartedness adds a gravity to some of the songs. Using a simile like “tequila in the morning” to describe the slight nausea brought on by gutwrenching memories is brilliant, and who can’t relate? Concerns about aging and mortality are weighty but more approachable thanks to lines like, “Someday, I’ll have a disappearing hairline / Someday, I’ll wear pajamas in the daytime,” which help to offset the dire, “I’ve seen the summer evenings pass by / I’ve heard the rattle in my bronchi.” It’s quirky, but it also feels truthful, a different view of the human condition that maybe doesn’t take everything so seriously.
My friend Derek and I went to see Elvis Costello in 1994 and the Crash Test Dummies opened for them. I wasn’t aware of their work outside of “Mmm, Mmm, Mmm, Mmm,” but that’s why you always show up in time for the opening act – you just might find your next favorite band. When playing their big radio hit, Brad changed the lyric in the third verse from a kid whose parents went to a weird church to a story about a kid who had his tonsils removed and kept them in a jar. He concluded the song with a quip to the effect of, “I’ve been told it’s not wise to change the lyrics to your one hit song when playing live, but then I’ve also been told it’s not wise to write hit songs with no lyrics in the chorus.” That sort of cleverness gets me every time and I was an instant fan.
I love this album for the lyrics, but I also love it for the music and the genuine sense of playfulness I pick up listening to the musicians working together. The full band of Brad & Dan Roberts, Ellen Reid, Mitch Dorge, and Benjamin Darvill works great together throughout. In particular, Ellen’s backing vocals perfectly offset Brad’s bass notes and her piano playing – along with Darvill’s mandolin – provides several nods back to the sounds of the first record. Unfortunately, the classic Dummies lineup would only last through the end of the decade and two more albums with diminishing commercial (but ever-expanding creative) rewards. By the time of 1999’s Give Yourself A Hand, the band had become The Brad Show in all but name only, though that was the album (along with one-off single “The Ballad Of Peter Pumpkinhead”), where Ellen’s vocals really got to shine. (As a side-note, if you’re a Dummies fan and really dig Ms. Reid’s lead vocals when they crop up, you definitely owe it to yourself to pick up her solo release, Cinderellen.)
I’ve continued to be a fan and continued to buy Crash Test Dummies albums – regardless of the lineup – for the past 25 years. I’m thrilled to see them at their upcoming show. And I’m hoping against hope that this reunion results in some studio sessions with the whole band. Maybe Brad Roberts’s peeping-tom of a psychic could predict some new Dummies music in the near future.