Sunday, July 6, 2008

These Crash Test Dummies Aren't Swedish

Firstly I’ll preface this post by admitting I surprised myself when I considered including a hit song from 1994 on a blog calling itself ‘Retro Universe’. But then I reminded myself that 1994 was 14 years ago and consequently I reckon it can now be considered a ‘retro’ era in anyone’s book - as scary as that thought is. The mid 90s wasn’t (and isn’t) my favourite era in popular music. Don’t get me wrong there were still a lot of quality songs out there but there was also a lot of junk. It’s not an era I strongly identify with the emergence of anything of lasting quality genre wise, well actually I’ll qualify that - grunge had already experienced and passed its peak, Brit pop was in its infancy, and dance/trance/house (call it whatever you want) was largely repetitive and not my thing (with a few exceptions). So it was kind of an ‘in-between’ time for music - a bit like the early 70s marked a lull between the heady days of the 60s and the emergence of glam/punk/disco in the mid 70s.

Having said all of that, some of my alltime favourite tracks are of mid 90s vintage and the Crash Test Dummies hit ‘Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm’ rates among the best. Crash Test Dummies (not to be confused with the Volvo variety) were a folk-rock quintet that hailed from the Canadian city of Winnipeg. Forming in 1989 they quickly established themselves as a quality act in the Canadian music scene. Their original lineup comprised Ellen Reid (keyboards/vocals), Benjamin Darvill (harmonica/guitar), Mitch Dorge (drums), with brothers Dan (bass) and Brad (vocals/guitar) Roberts.

Their musical style meshed a traditional folk-rock base with a topping of quirky, sometimes esoteric lyrics and featuring the unique voice of singer Brad Roberts out front. April 1991 saw the release of Crash Test Dummies’ debut album ‘The Ghosts That Haunt Me’. The album was a huge hit in Canada, going on to sell nearly 500,000 copies, and yielding the hit single ‘Superman’s Song’, which also became the group’s first hit single across the border (US#56). The album earned Crash Test Dummies the prestigious Juno Award for Group of the Year in Canada.

But it would be their sophomore album that would signal the arrival of Crash Test Dummies on the global music scene. ‘God Shuffled His Feet’ was produced by ex Talking Head Jerry Harrison and was released in late 1993. The first single would be the vehicle that would drive Crash Test Dummies to the top of charts around the world. The poignant ‘Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm’ was a beautifully crafted folk-rock ballad that addressed the universal issue of being different to the crowd, and all the drama that can accompany that. It was backed by one of the most clever music videos of that, or any other, decade. ‘Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm’ was brought to you by the letter M, and it soared to #1 in Canada, peaking at #2 in the U.K., #4 in the U.S. and topping the Australian charts in mid ‘94. The album ‘God Shuffled His Feet’ also made an impact for the Crash Test Dummies, topping charts in Canada and reaching the top 10 on the Australian, U.S. and U.K. charts.

It was always going to be difficult to match the phenomenal success of ‘Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm’ but the follow up was a really infectious little song called ‘Afternoons And Coffeespoons’, again lyrically really clever, speculating on where the advancing years might take us. I love the line “Someday I’ll have a disappearing hairline. Someday I’ll wear pyjamas in the daytime.” - almost 15 years later one of those lines has proved prophetic for me (and no I’m not going to tell you which one). ‘Afternoons And Coffeespoons’ performed well on the charts in its own right, reaching the Canadian top 20, #23 in the U.K. and #66 in the U.S. Two more singles ‘God Shuffled His Feet’ and ‘Swimming In Your Ocean’ were top 40 hits in Canada but didn’t register in other territories. The album ‘God Shuffled His Feet’ went on to sell over 10 million copies worldwide.

Crash Test Dummies had their last hit south of the border with the US#30 ‘The Ballad Of Peter Pumpkinhead’ in mid 1995, taken from the soundtrack to the film ‘Dumb And Dumber’ and featuring Ellen Reid on vocals. Their next album 1996’s ‘ A Worm’s Life’ marked a shift to a harder edged rock sound which wasn’t well received by the group’s fan base. The album sold relatively poorly and didn’t generate any hit singles. Rather than return to their folk-rock roots Crash Test Dummies again opted to experiment on their next album ‘Give Yourself A Hand’ in 1999. The album featured forays into R&B and electronic dance music and was a universal flop.

Not phased by the decline in sales of their previous albums, Crash Test Dummies have continued to explore other areas of music from southern-style goth rock on 2001’s ‘I Don’t Care That You Don’t Mind’ to 2002’s ‘Jingle All The Way’, a collection of Christmas standards. 2003’s ‘Puss ‘n’ Boots’ did signal somewhat of a return to a more accessible sound, but it appears that Crash Test Dummies are unlikely to revisit the lofty heights of mainstream popularity garnered by ‘God Shuffled His Feet’. I wonder if we’ll see them record an album titled ‘Music For Dummies’?
Check out the exceptional promo clip for ‘Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm’ here:

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