Who but an eternal class clown could contort the most unnatural bass-baritone into the vehicle for a top-five hit single?
Who but Brad Roberts, Crash Test Dummies' frontman, who led the Dummies to platinum sales of their breakthrough album, God Shuffled His Feet, and to the upper reaches of the singles charts with the album's track "Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm." That basso unprofundo of Roberts returns on Give Yourself A Hand. He used to credit his low rumble to his third testicle.
Until some fans actually believed the story. This time around, he sometimes adds counterpoint to his trademark voice with an equally twisted falsetto, as he does on the first single, "Keep A Lid On Things".
This singing style is the opposite of soul - a hardee-har-har facile drain of emotion. Yet the way the surface pleasure of a voice so unformulaic cuts through the cool of Modern Rock radio remains attractively unattractive. Give Yourself A Hand is a gauche record in both senses of the word: Roberts' awkward timbre may reveal a lack of social experience but "Keep A Lid On Things" is an outré experiment that lies to the left of the received "angst" of Bush or Live and is all the more refreshing because of it.
Rhythm is an entirely different matter altogether. A former Canadian, Roberts now resides in Harlem and apparently Ma$e's world has rubbed off on him. There are funky beats all over Give Yourself A Hand. Or rather, "funky," because they're those waka-jawaka drum-programmed beats that white folks like Fun Lovin' Criminals use when they want to emulate funk - "shave and haircut" rather than "shave and a haircut," if you will (never mind the "two bits").
The album makes you mourn its relative lack of passion, especially when its not-quite-right rhythms are coupled with songwriting that too often devolves into dirty limerick predictability. The crass "I Want to Par-Tay" could have been written by a socially inept 13-year-old but, sadly, it wasn't: "I shoulda checked before I chewed/ I got a worm stuck in my food./ I'm walkin' funny and it's not by chance,/ I got some shit stuck in my pants."
I'm still not 100% certain if this is a joke band or not, which is why "Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm" was a rather pointless choice for the Weird Al parody "Headline News," (which can be found on Weird Al's 1994 box set, Permanent Record (Al in the Box) and elsewhere). "Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm" was pretty funkin' jokey to begin with, something Weird Al himself might have come up with were he not in the deconstruction business. Watching Roberts' stupid long hair and sardonic half-grin in the video, it was difficult to tell just how seriously to take the kid whose parents have Lordgasms every Sunday.
Still, I'm grading the current CD leniently because I have a vehement prejudice against cool and a soft spot for dorks, especially ones exhibiting almost as much self-examination as the Barenaked Ladies did on "One Week" - to my ears, the finest geek anthem ever. Roberts' dork is a pussy-huntin' loose cannon but songs (hell, titles) like "A Cigarette Is All You Get" (RealAudio excerpt), "Give Yourself A Hand," "Just Shoot Me, Baby" and "Playing Dead" (a sort of fusion of "I'm On Fire" and "Damned Old Dog") are ostensibly about how much he knows he needs self-control.
"Cigarette" opens with otherworldly electronica instrumentation, seemingly removed from the urgency of bodily needs, but soon accedes to Roberts' steamy funk vocal. And the three admonitory songs sung by vocalist/keyboardist Ellen Reid never give in to his oedipal dramas. Whether she's rebuking his onanistic tendencies ("Just Chillin'" [RealAudio excerpt]) or setting his misconceptions straight ("A Little Something"), she gives no quarter when her identity is in danger of being compromised.
They may have originally called themselves Crash Test Dummies because dummies can stand in for the emotions that a past full of ridicule has compelled dorks to avoid. But with Give Yourself A Hand, they finally sound ready to try their hand at some human interaction.