Thursday, November 14, 2013
Crash Test Dummies' God Shuffled His Feet recently celebrated its 20-year old birthday. That album really put the band on the musical map. I remember interviewing Michael Stipe and him talking about the band because CTD and I shared a hometown. Prior to that time, most non-Canadians usually had to reach back to the Guess Who or Neil Young if pressed to name a Winnipeg-raised artist.
I first saw the band at the Winnipeg Children's Festival. The kids I was supervising were fascinated by some performer (a juggler, maybe?), but the Dummies were making music a few feet away. I stepped over and watched while my co-worker sat with the children, and I was slowly mesmerised, a fascinated audience of one. The cobblestones behind Portage Place made the perfect ground for old-fashioned busking. The voices of Brad Roberts and Ellen Reid together sounded like nothing I'd ever heard. Ben Darvill always looked like he was having more fun than you could imagine - and did you want to join him? I couldn't watch and listen too long, but I was intrigued. I couldn't peg the sound - was Spirit of the West a reference point? The Pogues? All I knew for sure was that Brad Roberts was much better as a songwriter/singer/frontman than a bartender.
In fact, Roberts was a better interview too, as I ended up writing stories about the band around the time of the first album and then the second. Intelligent, serious, and confident are words I would ascribe to him. Reid always seemed nice and grounded, and Ben Darvill was serious about music but a pretty funny fellow otherwise.
At any rate, God Shuffled his Feet definitely shuffled the band out of any folk-rock category and into the wider pop world. Just listen to the guitar on that album - sounds to me like a couple of XTC's records were spinning regularly somewhere in Winnipeg. Anyhow, I think the guitar o the album is the bee's knees - for example, the bright shimmery bits in Swimming in your Ocean, the cyclical chunky chords in Here I Stand Before Me (bonus tasty mouth harp too!), the exquisite solo in I Think I'll Disappear Now. Nobody was making SOTW comparisons anymore. Kevin Mutch's clever album cover stood out, and clearly Brad's songs did too, because the album became popular pretty quickly.
Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm became big enough for Weird Al Yankovic to parody, for gosh sake's. CTD performed on Saturday Night Live in a year dominated by bands some joker termed "grunge" - Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Smashing Punkins, and Stone Temple Pilots all hit the SNL stage that year (Don't know why Soundgarden didn't get invited to the party, I guess Tony! Toni! Toné! was more important. Or something.) At any rate, the only loud distorted guitar I remember on God Shuffled... appeared on How Does a Duck Know, and it seemed ironic to me somehow - it certainly wasn't related to anything Mudhoney or Tad hatched. And that's the point - Crash Test Dummies didn't sound like anyone else. Who else was titling tunes "When I Go Out With Artists" or throwing T.S. Eliot's name out there? (For more on this period of time, hunt down Kiva Simova and her book Crash Test Passenger: Tour Diary of a Hired Gun (try Facebook or Twitter) written from the point of view of a keyboard player and backing vocalist hired to fill out the band's sound, or Stephen Ostick's Superman's song: The Story of the Crash Test Dummies.)
In the years since its release, God Shuffled His Feet seems to have become an album that has polarized listeners. Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm especially has made a few "worst" lists, but others still love it. In the band's original hometown of Winnipeg, which has a love/hate relationship with everything including itself, I'm not sure that the record's success has ever been recognized. I can't think of an artist that has captured people's ears all over the world in the years since - maybe The Weakerthans have come the closest. Give a listen and tell me what you think after all of these years.
God Shuffled His Feet
Afternoons and Coffeespoons
Mmm Mmm Mmmm Mmm Mmm
In the Days of the Caveman
Swimming in Your Ocean
Here I Stand Before Me
I Think I'll Disappear Now & How Does a Duck Know
When I Go Out With Artists
Two Knights and Maidens