When we last heard from acclaimed Canadian folk-rockers the Crash Test Dummies on 2004’s Songs of the Unforgiven, lead Dummie Brad Roberts delivered a melancholy and haunting record largely based around a 19th century pipe organ. While achingly beautiful at times, it was also a bit out of left field, even for a band that has made a habit (and career) out of doing the unexpected. What a difference nearly six years has made. On Oooh La La, the Dummies’ ninth studio offering, Roberts’ outlook has transitioned from dark and foreboding to uncharacteristically light and, dare I say, joyful. The result is a record that covers new musical ground for the Dummies without straying as far from the offbeat pop style that attracted fans to the band in the first place.
“Songbird” opens Oooh La La and immediately suggests that some things never change. Roberts’ inimitable baritone still sounds rich and welcomes the listener like an old friend, and the chorus absolutely soars with longtime Dummie Ellen Reid sharing vocal duties. The acoustic-based “The In-Between Place” saunters along and touches upon the ambivalent feeling of being neither here nor there. “I’ve still got my mind, my body, and my heart/I can still be unkind/I can still come apart/I’m in the in-between place.” The real stunner, however, is the record’s bold and bright third track, “And It’s Beautiful”, on which Roberts is so unabashedly happy that it’s hard to believe this is the same man who wrote songs like “At My Funeral” and “The Unforgiven Ones”. “A glass is never just half full,” sings Roberts, “The flowers vivid, colorful/Though we feel the push and pull/Still it’s beautiful.” Even the odd inclusion of chanting/speaking in tongues between verses somehow works perfectly here and adds to the life-affirming vibe of the song.
The origin of these new songs is an odd and interesting one. Roberts and veteran producer Stewart Lerman actually composed them using an Optigan (a small electric organ) and Omnichord (an electronic instrument played by pushing buttons and strumming like a guitar), both musical toys from the ‘70s. Once a basic melody was formed, the two then created lush arrangements to layer over top. Most of the tracks on Oooh La La begin in the humble fashion in which they were first conceived, so the listener actually gets a sense of the bare bones “toy songs” before they build with additional instrumentation.
Another advantage Roberts cites to using the Optigan to write is that it inspired him to attempt songs in unlikely genres. “Not Today Baby” recalls Tin Pan Alley, “Now You See Her” takes a stab at swing complete with big-band backing, and “What I’m Famous For” is a manic country romp. While these experimental forays are probably Oooh La La’s weakest songs, it is still amusing to listen to Roberts tackle genres that most contemporary artists would never touch.
Other notable songs owe a great deal to the beautiful vocal contributions of Ellen Reid. Her subtle harmonies and backing between verses provide the finishing touches to the gorgeous, acoustic “Heart of Stone”. On “Put a Face”, the record’s brief closing number, Reid gets the chance to sing lead. And somehow, even after an album’s worth of Roberts’ signature baritone, Reid’s stark, clear voice seems like a fitting final word.
Oooh La La is a fine return and once again demonstrates that Brad Roberts will never be the type of songwriter who returns to the well. When he chooses to record, it’s because he has something new to say and a different way to say it. The results have varied over the years, but going more than half a decade without a Crash Test Dummies record has taught me something. It’s better when this crash test dude is around.