Just as The Eels are essentially Mark Everett and a revolving band of side players, Crash Test Dummies are basically Brad Roberts and whoever else he brings along for the ride.
The 19-year-old Canadian band is Roberts’ vehicle for whatever is on his mind musically and lyrically. He’s not exactly prolific — this is the Dummies’ ninth album in 19 years — but he’s always interesting. And much like Everett, Roberts has a skewed perspective that seems to see the world through a different filter than the rest of us.
That’s a good thing, of course, and it’s typically what we should expect from artists. Oooh Lala! is the Crash Test Dummies’ first release in six years and it’s a long way from the alternative rock that brought the band to prominence in the early ’90s. While it’s kind of hard to imagine now, this is a band that sold millions of records, was nominated for a Grammy with 1993’s God Shuffled His Feet, and had a substantial hit with the song “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm.”
It feels like forever since then, just as it seems impossible for an idiosyncratic band like this to break out in today’s music industry. It’s a good thing for Roberts that he no longer has to worry about such ephemera.
Oooh Lala! is a charming oddball of a disc with nothing that even sniffs of a “hit.” The vibe is equal parts Tom Waits and XTC, with an emphasis on unusual sounds, quirky lyrical perspectives and intricate craftsmanship. The catch is that Roberts and his co-writer and producer Stewart Lerman (Antony & The Johnsons and The Roches, among others) wrote many of the songs using analog toys from the ’70s.
This sounds weirder than it is because Roberts and Lerman only used the toys — especially something made by Mattel called an Optigan — as the bedrock for the original arrangements. So it’s not like you hear the plinking of out-of-tune plastic toys interfering with the songs. Instead, there’s a slightly eerie carnival-like atmosphere on Oooh Lala that is best described as baroque pop.
In the center of everything is Roberts’ rich baritone, which is instantly recognizable. It’s an instrument in its own right, and something that must sometimes feel like a burden to him. It’s not like he can bust out a falsetto or dramatically shift range, so he’s always in the same vocal groove.
Fortunately, on the disc’s 11 songs (with the exception of the closing cut that is sung by long-time Dummies member and collaborator Ellen Reid), Roberts’ subject matter and arrangements fashion a strong, sympathetic backdrop for these succinct musings on relationships and the mysteries of day-to-day life.
At first, songs like “Songbird “Put a Face”, and “Paralyzed” sound simple. But that’s deceptive because the arrangements are full of nuances — strings, odd ehcoes, Reid’s gorgeous harmonies tagging along with Roberts’ big voice — and the lyrics reveal subtle images that resonate even as the next song begins.
Perhaps most impressive is the two unabashed love songs that anchor the middle of Oooh Lala!. “And It’s Beautiful” is a happy, optimistic tune that features a catchy finger-picked guitar and wonderful backing vocals. It’s the sound of a guy who’s happy in his relationship and not afraid to lay it on the line without any cynicism or irony getting in the way. “Heart of Stone” is jarring in its maturity. It’s a complex exploration of what happens when a couple grows old together and accepts their mortality.
That’s big stuff, and Roberts deserves credit for not flinching in the face of what’s on his mind. Oooh Lala! exudes an artistic honesty that’s admirable. It’s not always what you want to hear — at times, it just feels too serious and weighty — but it’s real and true.