The Voice! Its the first thing that strikes you and that which forms the most lasting impression upon everyone who has ever heard a song by the Crash Test Dummies — lead vocalist Brad Roberts' voice. There's probably no other singing voice in popular music quite like his rich, sonorous baritone/bass, and it's been the distinguishing mark of the band since their first hit "Superman" back in the early 1990s. Of course the band was more than just their lead singer, but without Roberts' round tones they would have been just another slightly ironical folk/rock group among many.
Sure, their songs strayed into territory that others might have avoided, with quirky lyrics and a bite not normally found on popular radio. However, we all know how intelligence and originality can actually be a hindrance to a career in popular music, and here again the voice is what saved them. Its mellow tones were so deceptive that it could make any song's lyrics sound unthreatening and sort of soothing. How else can you explain a song like "Androgynous" receiving airplay? Not even Canadian content rules (in order to keep their licences radio and television stations in Canada have to broadcast a certain percentage of material that qualifies as Canadian-made) would have been sufficient to get tunes like that on the air without the soothing qualities of Roberts' voice.
Not being stupid people, the band always seemed well aware of that fact; one merely needs to watch the video they made to accompany their contribution to a Christmas album one year, "The First Noel". A faux family scene where Papa Brad, complete with World's Best Father coffee mug, and Momma Ellen Reed sing "Noel" to the "children" to explain the real meaning of Christmas parodies every earnest explanation seen or heard in the best television families.
Never being afraid to bite the hand that feeds them is of course what also makes the Crash Test Dummies so appealing - Roberts has been known to interrupt performances of their big hit "Mmm, Mmm, Mmm, Mmm," with a diatribe about the song being used in a French commercial for cheese: "A bunch of words viewers won't understand followed by 'mmm, mmm, mmm, mmm'."
With the release of their newest recording on May 11, 2010, Roberts has taken an approach that, intentionally or not, pokes fun at the industry's obsession with technology. He teamed up with producer Stewart Lerman, (Antony and the Johnsons and The Roaches) to create a series of songs utilizing old analog music toys. We're talking toys in the literal sense here with weird names like optigan — an organ using celluloid discs to project the sound of other instruments playing specific styles of music like big band, country, blues and so on, to serve as an accompaniment for those sitting down to play it, and omnichord, which looks for all the all world like a plastic autoharp with keys instead of strings. Now if you think that some digitalized instruments sound artificial, believe me when I tell you that some of these old analog toys from the 1960s and the 1970s make them sound stunningly accurate. So to say I was a little worried about what Oooh La La! would sound like was a bit of an understatement. Thankfully for all of us the use of the toys was more inspirational than actual, so while their presence is felt in some cases, the songs aren't awash in tinny plink-plinks.