Friday, January 19, 2018

Review of Crash Test Dummies' "God Shuffled His Feet"

I posted this review last night on the Sputnik Music site:

Review Summary: Gentle-but-eccentric Canadian folk rock

Oh Canada! Hail to my neighbor to the north. I praise you because not only have you shared with us some major musical talents over the years, like Rush and Joni Mitchell (for which I am eternally grateful), but you've also given us a host of quirky smaller bands throughout the last four or five decades, so many of whom I've enjoyed: Bands like Klaatu in the seventies, and Martha and the Muffins in the eighties. Oh, and in the nineties -- Crash Test Dummies!

Although they made a nice little career for themselves in the great white north, God Shuffled His Feet (1993) was this band's only internationally successful album. A follow-up to their 1991 debut The Ghosts That Haunt Me (which had reached #2 on the Canadian charts), this one took off around the world, reaching #1 in New Zealand, #2 in the UK, #5 in Austria, and #9 in the U.S. It also went double platinum in the U.S. and triple platinum in Canada (although it was actually less successful overall there than their first album had been). In most of the world outside of Canada, the album was largely powered by the success of one unconventional single, a slow and poignant track about how it feels to be different, the oddly- titled "Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm".

The song is a highly atypical single -- it's slow, soft and very sentimental. The verses tell the tales of three different children: a boy whose hair turns white after a harrowing car crash, a girl who doesn't want to change clothes in the school locker room because she has birth marks all over her body, and a boy who is a member of a Pentecostal church where the worshipers regularly lurch and shake in religious ecstasy. The chorus consists entirely of the quasi-humming of lead singer Brad Roberts, as he repeats the song's title. The lyrics draw you into the children's embarrassment and their shame at being perceived as different from their classmates, all the while only implying (without spelling out) the daily torment they receive from their contemporaries. Nowadays, I get the feeling that the track is somewhat looked down on by music fans. This is unfortunate, because on its own terms, it's both a touching and effective little song.

The music throughout God Shuffled His Feet is a genial brand of soft folk rock. There's a lot of acoustic guitar and piano. The most striking thing about the band's sound is Robert's deep voice (which falls somewhere in the bass/baritone range) and his sharp and distinctive way of pronouncing his words. The other unique thing about the LP is its thematic frame. Many of the song lyrics have to do with the relationship between God and his creations. The album practically functions as an advertisement for Intelligent Design theory.

Overall, God Shuffled His Feet is a top-heavy album -- the first three tracks are far and away the strongest. In addition to the "Mmm Mmm" song, there's the LP's title track, an unhurried tune with a wry sense of humor that finds God, having just made the world, engaged in an awkward encounter with his new creations. He tries to communicate to his people in parables, but finds himself somewhat flummoxed by the more concrete nature of their questions: "If your eye got poked out in this life/Would it be waiting up in heaven with your wife?" Then there's "Afternoons & Coffeespoons", the album's second track, which is a more upbeat number powered by some nicely strummed acoustic guitar. This one is an amusing, if someone regretful, tract about aging: "Someday I'll have/A disappearing hairline/Someday I'll wear/Pajamas in the daytime." It was modestly successful as a single, and is considered by many Crashheads (or whatever the band's more devoted fans call themselves) to be the quintessential Crash Test Dummies tune.

The rest of the album is okay -- it's just not up to the standards of those first three tracks. "Swimming in Your Ocean" was a somewhat successful single in Canada, but if you're looking for the next best song, I prefer the soft, lackadaisical pleasures of "The Psychic" -- there's some lovely piano on this one, and it provides an excellent showcase for Roberts' resonant voice.

Although the band continued to have some success in their home country, internationally, they dropped back into obscurity after God Shuffled His Feet. Regardless, this is a pretty decent album in its own right, and it also serves as a good example of the kind of eccentric alternative rock music that was often successful in the early 1990s.

Rating: 3.5/5 stars