March 16, 1994
Crash Test Dummies, God Shuffled His Feet (Arista 1993) -- The Crash Test Dummies, a quartet hailing from Winnipeg, Canada, have released a groundbreaking sophomore album in God Shuffled His Feet. With its dense, richly textured production and the distinctive baritone vocals of Brad Roberts, the Crash Test Dummies are ready to crash this party.
The band, which is considered a mainstream pop act in Canada, developed a modest following in the States following the release of its 1991 debut album, The Ghosts That Haunt Me. On God Shuffled His Feet, the band departs from its acoustic roots and heads toward an alternative sound, with a crisp rhythm section and supremely over-dubbed guitars and keyboards.
The fact that the production on the album (which was recorded in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin) is flawless is not surprising, considering that Jerry Harrison (of Talking Heads fame) was at the helm. Singer Roberts explains, "We wanted to use synthesizers and samples rather than acoustic instruments this time. A lot of the richness you hear on the record is cultivated by a wide variety of synthetic sounds."
The album opens strongly with the title cut, in which a group of picnickers holds a conversation with God. After the Almighty makes a remark, one picnicker asks "Not quite clear/What you just said/Was that a parable/Or a very subtle joke?" Lyrics (and an attitude) like this, which are both questioning and whimsical at the same time, are rare indeed. From its scratchy opening sample to the closing synthesized guitar work of guest Adrian Belew, "God Shuffled His Feet" is a terrific pop tune.
The album continues with the spacey, richly-textured sound of "Mmm, Mmm, Mmm, Mmm," in which Roberts recalls some of the traumas of adolescence, and the upbeat "In the Days of the Caveman," in which Roberts' rich baritone is wedded with the voice of backup singer Ellen Reid to produce a swelling song of faith and hope. Also featured is "Swimming in Your Ocean," in which Roberts admits that, while he's "swimming in your ocean," none of life's imponderables really matter.
The Crash Test Dummies are on the verge of something big. After a few listenings, God Shuffled His Feet reveals its one flaw; Roberts (the group's chief songwriter) is a bit lacking as a lyricist. Someone needs to help Roberts distill the silliness from his songs and focus on the deeper meanings at which he hints. If the Crash Test Dummies develop more mature material, they could be mighty. In the meantime, God Shuffled His Feet is close enough.
Richard Thompson, Mirror Blue (Capitol 1994) -- London native Richard Thompson has released one of the best solo albums of his long career in Mirror Blue. While Thompson is revered as a cult figure for his late 60s work with British folk-rockers Fairport Convention, Mirror Blue shows his artistic development, as Thompson incorporates a variety of styles (including tinges of folk and jazz) to produce a fine rock record that features clear vocals, intelligent songs, and great guitar work.
Thompson's style is unique, in part because his delivery seems so urgent; he creates the feeling that his cuts are important, and that you need to listen to them. Thompson is, in many ways, the British counterpart to John Hiatt (whose recent album, Perfectly Good Guitar, was also terrific). Their sound is guitar/folk oriented, and their poetry is intelligent and challenging (if not always pretty).
As proven by the lyrics on "The Way That It Shows" ("You're going to give yourself away one of these nights...A slip of the tongue, a squeeze of the hand/That's the way that it shows"), and "Taking My Business Elsewhere" ("If she's not here by now/Then I guess she's not coming...Waiter, I won't waste your time any more...I'll head for the door"), Thompson knows the down side of relationships and life, and he's still willing to explore them.
Thompson explains, "I don't try to be negative [but] truly happy music just isn't very interesting. The best popular music is always about sad stuff, or serious, violent, or dangerous stuff...I think rock has become capable of affecting adult emotions and concepts; it isn't just a young person's music any more. I don't see why I should burn out or anything. It just doesn't seem necessary."
On Mirror Blue, Thompson enlisted the production assistance of Mitchell Froom (who has also worked with Los Lobos and Crowded House) to create more of a pop sound than his last release, the difficult Rumor and Sigh. The richness of Thompson's guitar technique, and the depth of his experiences, come clear on Mirror Blue.
Moreover, Thompson never becomes moody or morose on Mirror Blue, and doesn't allow his emotions to obscure his delivery (as did Tom Waits on his gloomy and disappointing recent release, The Black Rider). Thompson has the rare ability to balance a pop song structure against a darker content. In fact, his finest album, the duet with ex-wife Linda Thompson entitled Shoot Out The Lights, was a tremendous catharsis of adulterous guilt and the turmoil of an imploding relationship set against a pop/rock background.
The highlight of Mirror Blue is the delightful "Shane and Dixie," a rollicking pop song based on the career of a couple of "two bit crooks." The feel on "Shane and Dixie" is close to Kirsty MacColl's "Can't Stop Killing You," another stiletto pop song in which the meaning is slipped in like a knife in the ribs while the beat keeps your feet tapping away. "Shane and Dixie" is a dynamite cut, filled with ambiguous statements about "fame and love," and deserves a ton of airplay.
The release of Mirror Blue was reportedly delayed for six months due to internal changes at Capitol: during this period, Thompson says he wrote the follow-up to Mirror Blue. Despite the delay, Mirror Blue is a great British pop album. Moody yet accessible, it should not be ignored.
We're Still Waiting -- Despite its change in format last December, KKDJ (105.9) continues to toll away in a singles mine. When will the folks at KKDJ realize that singles is a pop 40 format, and that rock is an album format? Until they start playing a greater diversity of cuts off albums (and not just at 10:00 p.m.), KKDJ won't reach its full potential.
Go Ask Gilligan -- Russell Johnson, the Professor on television's Gilligan's Island, reports that through the years, many people have asked him "If I was smart enough to make a radio out of a coconut, why couldn't I get us off the island?" Thanks, Professor. Now we know what made America great.
-- Randy Krbechek
Copyright (c) Randy Krbechek
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