If the Crash Test Dummies' Brad Roberts sounds more like a philosophy major than a rock star, blame his extensive education. Roberts's quest for a master's degree in English literature was sidetracked when his half-serious band caught the attention of some record-company representatives. Still, he obviously learned something from his undergraduate work. Even as he rushes to finish an interview from a hotel pay phone before a bus scheduled to take the Dummies to their next gig leaves without him, he's still able to articulately discuss the influence his schooling has had on the band's intriguing music. "You're taught skills in critical thinking," he says. "So that's bound to rub off."
For proof, look no further than "How Does a Duck Know?" a cut from God Shuffled His Feet, the Dummies' second release for the Arista label. A casual listener might assume the song is about nothing more than the intelligence of ducks. But Roberts, who writes, plays guitar and sings in an engagingly low baritone, would never pen such a linear verse. "Ducks are just used as an example of unconscious behavior," he claims. "What's being explored in the song is instinctive-versus-conscious behavior."
Equally creative is the band's music, which combines standard rock sounds with instruments such as Irish penny whistles and mandolins. To Roberts, this does not constitute cultural appropriation. "There's a lot of genre-crossing going on," he says. "In this day and age, the kind of influences that exercise one's imagination don't necessarily have anything to do with one's ethnic roots. You can go down to the store and buy CDs that are Chinese opera or African nose music or rock and roll."
The musicians who interpret this myriad of influences include keyboardist/backup vocalist Ellen Reid, mandolinist/harmonica player Benjamin Darvill, drummer Michael Dorge and bassist Dan Roberts, Brad's brother. While this sibling relationship is important to the band, Brad insists the Roberts boys are in no danger of being categorized with either the Breeders or Donny and Marie. "I never try to downplay it," he explains, "but it's never really been a point of emphasis, either. We perform rather different roles in the band, so it's not like the Bobbsey Twins singing harmony together or something."
The Dummies first got together during the late Eighties in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and soon were ensconced as the house band for a small Winnipeg club. They played mostly covers, yet it was a demo tape of five Brad Roberts originals that attracted the attention of A&R types. Arista eventually signed the group and released 1991's The Ghosts That Haunt Me, an album best known for "Superman's Song," a surprise favorite with alternative-rock stations. "Superman isn't even a hero of mine," Roberts confesses. "I just happened to use him as a character for reasons that had to do with the themes that I was discussing. Funny, but a lot of comic-book geeks try to bond with me, and I don't really know that much about comics."
Ghosts, which Roberts calls "an attempt to take a variety of acoustically based traditional genres and recombine them in interesting new ways," was recorded in less than two weeks on a practically nonexistent budget. By contrast, the Dummies had considerably more time and money to produce their second album, this year's God Shuffled His Feet. Because synthesizers and sampling have been added to the acoustic instruments, Roberts says, "there's a lot more going on sonically to flesh out the arrangements."
The disc's title track--built around a fictional conversation between God and some inquisitive human beings--is a highlight, as is "When I Go Out With Artists," featuring a narrator who Roberts says "is quite naive. He can't get terms like `cubism' and `dadaism' straight, and he's got a very cliched view of the art world that involves martinis and single-malt Scotch." The latter song also mentions David Byrne, but Roberts swears he wrote it before he chose Jerry Harrison, Byrne's former bandmate, to co-produce the album: "It was purely coincidental that there were two Talking Heads involved in the record in the end."
Although much of God's material deals with disease or mortality, the album's most straightforward tune, "Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm," has become one of the year's unlikeliest hit singles. Roberts insists that the song's tales of youthful dysfunction are not autobiographical. "What I was trying to do," he says, "was sketch portraits of kids with the typically quirky problems that seem like a big deal when you're in childhood. I was just trying to go after that sort of funny view of the world that kids have."
Of course, the final result is far more complicated than that. Clearly, Roberts is not your average Dummie.
Crash Test Dummies. 8 p.m. Sunday, March 27, Ogden Theatre, 935 East Colfax, 21 ID, $16, 290-TIXS or 830-2525.
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