In vocalist Brad Roberts’ own words, the Crash Test Dummies’ first new album in six years, “Oooh La La,” features “some of the most sophisticated production that I’ve done in some time.”
The album’s songs, which bear lush, at times symphonic arrangements layered with guitars, strings and Roberts’ trademark baritone voice, were written with producer and multi-instrumentalist Stewart Lerman utilizing old musical toys. Most prominently, Roberts experimented with an Optigan, a chord organ-like toy instrument from the ’70s that plays pre-recorded instrument sounds from rotating plastic discs.
For the touring behind this album, though, Roberts is taking almost the opposite approach, stripping the sound to just the bare essentials. In fact, Roberts isn’t playing any guitar at all — he and longtime Dummies member vocalist Ellen Reid have been augmented by a single acoustic guitarist. The current Northeastern run, which began today and hits The Linda on Saturday night, will feature Jimmy Reid standing in for usual backers Stuart Cameron and Murray Pulver, neither of whom were available this time around.
More powerful sound
“As far as the band goes, people are coming up to me and saying kind of what I was feeling about this, which is, ‘It feels more powerful without drums and bass,’ ” Roberts said from his home in New York City, about a week and a half before the current touring stretch began.
Crash Test Dummies
with Lonesome Val
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: The Linda, WAMC’s Performing Arts Studio, 339 Central Ave., Albany
How Much: $20
More Info: 465-5233 ext. 4, www.wamcarts.org
“When I started playing these shows, at first I thought, I’ll play — you know, I’m a good enough acoustic guitar player. But it just sounded better when it was just one player, where you can hear every note I sing. When the guitarist plays delicately, just a little ‘ping,’ you can hear a pin drop; whereas, when he strums into it like a mofo, it sounds like a train. We’ve got a whole rhythm section just in one guy.”
Not to mention that touring conditions have been much better for the band, with only four people, including the tour manager/sound man, in one van. The band has hit both U.S. coasts with this setup, along with a cross-country trip through the band’s native Canada in early fall.
“When the Crash Test Dummies used to tour, we had like 20 people on the road,” Roberts said. “Just sitting down and getting food — when you ordered whenever you walked into a restaurant, 10, 20 people strong, it was a big production. It gets to be a real pain in the ass. This way, we can stop at whatever gas stations we want to and not have to have this mega entourage that made everything an undertaking.”
In fact, touring in this manner is the main reason Roberts is even able to tour under the Crash Test Dummies banner again. The folky alternative rockers, best known for early ’90s singles “Superman’s Song” and “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm,” began the 2000s at a low point — the group left major label BMG and Roberts was involved in a near-fatal car accident in Nova Scotia. During his recuperation he wrote much of the band’s 2001 indie return “I Don’t Care That You Don’t Mind” with a group of Nova Scotian lobster fishermen.
Two more albums followed in rapid succession — 2003’s “Puss ’n’ Boots” and 2004’s “Songs of the Unforgiven” — with the band by this time only featuring Roberts, Reid and Roberts’ brother Dan from its original lineup. But such a heavy release and touring schedule began to take a toll financially, as Roberts struggled to make ends meet as a working musician.
“I couldn’t make money anymore — the record business had just gone so dry,” he said. “I couldn’t sell CDs, and it was too expensive to bring the band out anymore. The only reason I can do it this time is because I’ve got the trio and I’ve managed to keep my expenses extremely low.”
Drawn by sound
When he began writing with the Optigan, he was no longer looking at music as a career, which led to much of the experimentation found on “Oooh La La.” He’s not sure when he first was introduced to the toy, but he was immediately drawn in by the sound.
“It was love at first sight — I just thought they were the creepiest sounding things,” he said. “It sounded like they were coming out of the past. It sort of had this gramophone quality; it sounded unreal, and of course, they were unreal — it was all programmed into this strange optical film technology as audio. And actually, recently someone just made a new Optigan disc, although I can’t imagine why — it’s of no commercial value.”
Because of the old age and limitations of the Optigan, which as a toy was never designed for professional playing, Roberts had to have the instruments refurbished. Writing on them was also a much different experience for him and Lerman.
“The music was coming out of the machines more than us,” Roberts said.
“Sometimes we would press the wrong buttons, and it would sound better than our original ideas. This record was a joy, really easy to make, and such a breeze, which is certainly not always the case. . . . Every time we sat down [with the Optigan] we got something good, and we knew it was good. That’s one of the nice things about working with somebody else — you’re not in a hall of mirrors; you can say to someone, ‘Is this good?’ ”
“Oooh La La” features 11 songs, but Roberts and Lerman wrote about 25 during the sessions, which Roberts hopes to release at some point late next year. After coming off a long hiatus, he couldn’t be more pleased with his band’s current situation. As for his former mainstream success, he has no regrets.
“You know, to be honest, I purposely got off of BMG — they were extremely intrusive with regards to everything I tried to do, and constantly hindered my ability to make the music I wanted to make,” he said.
“I did my own thing for a number of years successfully, until the bottom fell out of the industry. But now I’m up and at ’em again with a mean, lean fighting machine.”