Brad Roberts was once dead set against collaborating with another songwriter, but upon doing so the Crash Test Dummies next album, Give Yourself A Hand (due out in March) has a whole lot of soul and hip hop beats.
The first single, "Keep A Lid On Things" has a slow, steady groove, and Roberts, Winnipeg native best known for his Jolly Green Giant baritone even sings in falsetto. On "A Cigarette Is All Your Get", that falsetto does make an appearance but he mainly sing-speaks rhythmically as a funky groove churns rapidly behind him. There's even a song called "I Want To Par-Tay!", on which he comes dangerously close to rapping.
"Oh, no I don't rap on this record," he responds, and, of the falsetto, he says, "To be honest, I didn't even know I could sing in a falsetto until I started living up here and started hearing it all the time and doing it myself unconsciously."
Up here is Harlem. After living in London, England for a number of years, Roberts now lives in New York where his neighbourhood is filled with black music. "I really had no intention of moving here in order to soak up any atmosphere. It was just a question of knowing somebody who will rent a place to me."
He attributes much of the Dummies' new direction on Give Yourself A Hand to the fact that he co-wrote with producer Gregg Wells, a Peterborough, Ont. native now living in Los Angeles, who Roberts met at Miles Copeland's invitation-only songwriting retreat in France.
"When I was first invited to that retreat, I had no intention of going whatsoever," Roberts admits. "I'd just never written with anybody in my life. To me, it seemed like a very solitary type of activity. Then, I thought, 'Well, Brad, you're being your usual narrow-minded self, maybe you should give it a shot.' And it worked out better than I ever had imagined."
Although none of the collaborations ended up on Give Yourself A Hand, there he wrote with numerous people, including Carole King, Kevin Hunter (Wire Train), John Parish (Wall of Voodoo, P.J. Harvey) and Wells, who he asked to produce the new Dummies album. He also left with a new appreciation for co-writing.
In the past, it had simply been Roberts strumming out a melody and figure out the chord structure on his acoustic guitar, then writing the lyrics. This time, the process was reversed.
"I found the most fruitful way of getting things done was for me to sit down and write the set of lyrics and go to him with the lyrics and read them to him and say, 'Where do you think we should run with this?," says Roberts.
"Then he would call up a sound, maybe vibes or piano or pick up the guitar or sit behind the drum kit -- he's super multi-talented and can play almost anything -- and I would sing the lyrics along to the chords until we came up with something that jelled, then work on the arrangement."
He did this in Los Angeles in a "closet-sized" demo studio, where Roberts says the bulk of the album was recorded. "It was only at the very end of the recording process that we went into a bigger studio." And the rest of the Dummies - Ellen Reid (vocals, keyboards), Mitch Dorge (drums), Ben Darvill (harp, mandolin) and Dan Roberts (bass) -- joined him.
As for whether this groovier Dummies will alienate a fanbase which bought 1990's The Ghosts That Haunts Me, 1993's six-million-seller God Shuffled His Feet and 1996's A Worm's Life, which sold 600,000 worldwide and went platinum in Canada, Roberts doesn't give it a thought.
"In the case of Crash Test Dummies, the first record was very folk and country influenced, our second record was much more pop, our third record had a lot of heavy electric guitars and was much more rock, and this one's obviously more rhythmically oriented," says Roberts. "So all the records have been quite different from each other and the whole issue of trying not to alienate your fanbase has never really been a big one for us."