9.11.2008

Canadian Wonder #2 - Crash Test Dummies


If I had been really thinking ahead in 1993, I would have made a pop culture time capsule, just to represent where America's mind was in that year.

In the capsule would have been a VHS copy of Pauly Shore's Son in Law, a John Stockton Utah Jazz jersey, a couple of R.L. Stine Goosebumps novels, and, without a doubt, a cassette single of the Crash Test Dummies' hit single "Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm."

What was going on in 1993 that would allow Americans to accept such a bizarre song into their homes and cars? Did the Bills losing their third consecutive Super Bowl open a door to an alternate universe? Did David Koresh seek vengeance on America from beyond the grave by making a Pauly Shore movie a box office smash and giving R.L. Stine an insanely lucrative career as an author? Maybe a gas leak that reached every suburb in the country?

But I digress. Perhaps "Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm" isn't even the most unusual one-hit wonder of the '90s. Might I remind you that just a year earlier, a Flatwoods, Kentucky redneck with a mullet the size of which no man can measure unleashed "Achy Breaky Heart" on an unsuspecting public? And when there are artists like Green Jelly and Willi One-Blood out there, you can't call it the weirdest--but it's probably in the top 5.

The thing about "Mmm" is that a description of the song can't really do it justice. I'll give it a go though: "Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm" is a a folky alternative rock ballad that tells three different stories of bizarre hardships suffered by children, sung by a vocalist who vaguely sounds like he's just inhaled sulfer hexafluoride, with each verse followed by a chorus that's entirely hummed (hence the onomatopoeia title). That's as good as I can do and it still doesn't hit on the specific creepiness of the lyrics about girls with birthmark ravaged bodies and boys whose parents belong to a strange, unnamed religious sect that requires them inact seizures from their pews. This being the '90s, the song was of course given the MTV treatment with a strange little video that featured children acting out the incidents in the Dummies' song as one-acts plays (shades of Rushmore), as well as an excessive number of shots featuring vocalist Brad Roberts' making peculiar facial expressions during the chorus (gotta emote somehow when you're humming I guess).

The first single from their second album, God Shuffled His Feet, the song was a worldwide hit, going to #4 on the Hot 100 US chart, #2 in the UK and #1 in Australia. Surprisingly, in their native Canada (they hail from Neil Young's town of Winnipeg, Manitoba), the tune didn't even break into the top ten, falling behind the success of the group's first single, the amusingly earnest "Superman's Song," which hit #4 in Canada and only made it to #56 in the US.

But these are just numbers. For time-tested, scientific proof that this song was a massive hit, we turn to our friend "Weird Al" Yankovic, who turned his mad parodyin' skills on the tune with "Headline News"--a song that replaced Dummies' lyricist and singer's stories about childhood oddities to humorous accounts of Michael Fay's caning in Singapore, the Nancy Kerrigan/Tonya Harding incident and Lorena and John Wayne Bobbit's ordeal, the climax of which was described with one line, where Bobbit awakens to find that "Mr. Happy was missing." Oh, "Weird," what will you do next?

But how to follow up such an unusual hit single? The problem is, you really can't.

After the non-showing that was the group's next single, "Swimming in Your Ocean," a slightly more uptempo and rocking track with a video possibly creepier than their hit single's , the group managed to hit the US charts again with "Afternoons and Coffeespoons," a song based on the freshman English student favorite The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock, a poem by T.S. Eliot. If we learned anything from Andrew Lloyd Weber's CATS--a musical adaptation of Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats--it's that T.S. Eliot poems do not translate to popular media. Brad Roberts and the rest of the Dummies were apparently unaware of this fact. But who am I to criticize? CATS ran for approximately 80 years on Broadway, so maybe they were hoping for quantity and longevity instead of quality.

But again, here's an example of a song that's not bad at all. It's a fun, catchy song. Not great, but it's a fine follow up, but likely not what the public was looking for. Unless you count the references to T.S. Eliot or Roberts' vocals, there's nothing all that unusual, and, despite an enjoyably hooky chorus, to audiences today it may come off as a bit generic. Dare I say people might have wanted it a little bit weirder? The music, instrumentation and song itself doesn't sound that far removed from the '90s roots based college rock bands to come later in the decade--Blues Traveler, Hootie and the Blowfish, etc. Except it has that voice, which, granted, sounds far more palpable on this track. Still, I'd wager US audiences just weren't ready to hear that voice outside of any context except "Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm." "Afternoons and Coffeespoons" peaked at #66 on the Hot 100 charts.

But for me, I never even heard "Afternoons and Coffeespoons" on the radio. The next Dummies single I heard was a cover of XTC's Nonsuch classic, "The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead" which was released on the original soundtrack to Dumb & Dumber--a movie which also featured "Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm," though it wasn't included on the CD. "Pumpkinhead" is a fairly straightforward and unimaginative remake of XTC's hit, except there's something unusual about it. See if you can guess what I'm talking about:

No, not the Jeff Daniels cameo, though that is quite awesome. No, it's not that they omit the second verse from XTC's original (though they do, and huzzah for noticing). Get this: Brad Roberts is only the backup vocalist! He's not singing lead! Yeah! They've got some chick named Ellen Reid singing lead. Who's Ellen Reid? How the hell should I know? Far as I can tell she was a band member who usually sang back up, but they gave her this shot since Roberts, no doubt, couldn't quite reach those Andy Partridge notes very easily.

Now, forgive me, as I'm about to contradict myself. I realize I just said "Afternoons and Coffeespoons" didn't hit because people couldn't get down with Roberts' voice, but in the end, that is their hook. Roberts' voice is the band. You either like it or you don't and there's no in between. If the track were just a one-off for the soundtrack, it'd be one thing; but they released it as a single! Bad move. Makes it look like you're trying to change the band's image and sound by changing what makes the band unique (even if not everyone likes it). Giving some generic chick the mic just makes you into a generic bar band. Sorry, Dummies, but The Second Single is all about tough love. There will be no coddling here.

Though God Shuffled His Feet was the pinnacle of the band's career, the Dummies nevertheless charted with their next album, A Worm's Life, and continued to be successful in Canada up through their fourth album, Give Yourself a Hand, which reportedly found Reid taking on more vocal duties, Roberts trying out a falsetto and the band including "electronic elements" (shudder).

After Hand, they left (or were dropped by) BMG records, and Roberts was nearly fatally injured in a car accident. While recuperating in Nova Scotia, Roberts became friends with some local fisherman/musicians and reportedly wrote and recorded a bunch of songs with these guys. Though intended as a solo album for Roberts, the Dummies agreed to tour behind the album, titled I Don't Care That You Don't Mind, and slapped their name on it. According to AllMusic.com the album has an almost "Southern feel," and they compare it to Chris Isaak. Mmm-hmm (mmm mmm). The next album, 2003's Puss N Boots, also started life as a Roberts solo album, but soon became the Dummies' six album. In 2004 came their eighth studio album, Songs of the Unforgiven.

Though the band is said to be done with touring, and Roberts has moved on to solo material (reportedly promising not to slap the Dummies name on it this time), the band did manage to squeeze out a Best of album in 2007, giving new audiences a chance to hear the magical baritone and folky alt. rock that was the Crash Test Dummies. But why the Dummies get a Best of and the Criterion Collection Encino Man isn't any closer to being a reality, I'll never know.

Download: Crash Test Dummies - Afternoons and Coffeespoons
Download: Crash Test Dummies - Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm

3 comments:

Captain Stuben said...

I hope that (shudder) was for the attempts at falsetto and not for the addition of 'electronic elements.' I know how much you love the remixed "Magic Carpet Ride" on the GO soundtrack. I just want to make sure you aren't misrepresenting yourself.

Ryan said...

You had me at the 'Weird Al' reference.

Rockstar Aimz said...

I think I hears somewhere that Crash Test Dummies originally got a big arts grant from the Canadian government, and that's how they survived before they got signed to BMG. This may not be true, but if it is we can thank the Canadian government for this crap. I bet Weird Al never got an arts grant.