POP / Things that make you go mmm: The Crash Test Dummies are hard to locate musically speaking, and even harder to locate to speak about music. As Marek Kohn discovered when he tracked down Dan The Only Dummy Available to a Toronto launderette

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For a rock singer with a throat geared low enough, there's plenty of room at the bottom. Among all the tenors, falsettos, piping and wailing, a baritone has an immediately arresting presence. Put a deep voice together with an idiosyncratic song, and

within a few weeks, you're part of the nation's pop consciousness. It has happened for the Crash Test Dummies, with the hit 'Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm', just as surely as it happened for Right Said Fred. The comparison can be taken a little further. What makes both groups tick is a sensibility that belongs firmly to the cultural margins. Most of their audience is only passingly aware of it, but that sensibility is ultimately what they are buying. In the case of the Freds, it was glam-and- gym bisexuality;in that of the Dummies, the philosophical drollery of the permanent student. Persuading the masses to take either camp or campus to their bosoms is a delicate art.

For the Dummies, the current state of play is that everybody knows the single with the wordless chorus and the lyrics about children in mysterious plights; a more select group are familiar with the group's second album, God Shuffled His Feet, but the band themselves remain enigmatic. All we can be sure of is that they don't go about their business in a conventional fashion.

There are moments when this seems like a mixed blessing. One of these comes on Tuesday evening, when Dan Roberts, bass player and brother of singer-songwriter Brad, telephones me from Canada - more specifically, from a payphone in a launderette near

Toronto, an hour later than scheduled. The thing is he's due to fly off to England shortly, and he doesn't want the bother of finding a launderette in London. He suggests I call him a little later at his hotel, where he is registered under the name of Archie Wood, the name of a ventriloquist's dummy who entertained him as a child in his native Winnipeg. Dan is the only Dummy available, the others having been stricken by food poisoning a few days before their London show at the Forum. Fortunately, Dan assures me that his colleagues are recovering, and the show will indeed go on.

Two things are immediately apparent. One is that the Dummies still do their own laundry, despite a worldwide hit single, a million-selling album, and hotel staff presumably willing to provide the service. The other is that Dan Roberts sounds more like a man on a veranda with a drink in his hand than somebody with damp smalls and a flight to catch. And from what he says about the Crash Test Dummies, they too are a band at ease with themselves.

That attitude may arise in part because they drifted into existence, rather than being driven into it. The first crucial step was taken when a teenage Brad Roberts, frustrated at the noise which emerged when he tried to sing rock the normal way, consulted a singing tutor. He was advised that he had a bass baritone range, and was shown how to use it. Later, while studying for a double major in English Literature and Philosophy at the University of Winnipeg, he started up a band to give himself something to do at the weekend. The regular gig was at the local Blue Note club; the material was strictly covers, from traditional Irish tunes to old Alice Cooper numbers. Then something interesting began to develop: he began to write his own material as well. As well as a First degree, he ended up with a portfolio of songs. He now had a real choice between his postgraduate course and the rock 'n' roll life.

Three years Brad's junior, Dan had made the same career choice some time before, taking up a gig in a bar band instead of a university place. In late 1989, Brad asked Dan to join his group. 'I was a little bit nervous about leaving the job I had, because it was a good steady job,' Dan says, 'but I didn't want to play in clubs forever, and I was very impressed with the songs that Brad had. I was a fan already.'

The Crash Test Dummies first made a splash in 1991, with their debut album The Ghosts That Haunt Me, and 'Superman's Song', a hit single that did for them in Canada what 'Mmm-Mmm', as Dan refers to it, has now done for them worldwide. Besides the Roberts brothers, the band comprises drummer Mitch Dorge, keyboard player Ellen Reid, and Benjamin Darvill, who plays harmonica and mandolin. While Brad Roberts provides the lyrics, melodies and basic musical structures, it is obvious that the final

result is the work of a group, not that of one individual and his assistants. 'Ellen and I tend to take a more pop approach to the music,' Dan Roberts observes. 'Brad and Mitch are always trying to push to take it outside a little further, so it seems we settle on a middle ground.'

The lyrical sensibility, it seems, is Brad's alone. 'We're completely different people, and that is part of the reason we get along so well in the band,' says Dan, who has no suggestions as to where his brother finds his distinctive imagery. On God Shuffled His Feet, a number of themes are readily apparent: fear of serious illness, fear of death, evolution, an obscure and capricious God. More specific motifs also recur: hair changing colour, and pyjamas. This would normally suggest a few ideas

being milked dry, but here it seems to indicate a desire to work them out thoroughly. Brad is now 30, an age consistent with his lyrical preoccupations. On top of the awareness of mortality that descends in adolescence has come the late-twenties realisation that death will probably be preceded by baldness.

But it is the attitude to the Deity which perhaps defines the Brad Roberts world- view best. Like that of Douglas Adams, the humour is based on the idea that there is something distinctly rum about the universe, but the approach is much drier. In the album's title song, God assembles 'some people he had made' and talks to them about a boy who wakes up with blue hair, delighted but wondering how his friends will treat him. A silence ensues. Then someone asks 'Was that a parable, or a very subtle joke?'

Sections of the Dummies' audience, some critics included, are similarly apt to overlook the point. Yet this is actually a testament to the power of the band's oblique approach to pop music. In Canada, their new single is 'Swimming In Your Ocean'. Ellen Reid devises the scenarios for their videos, and for this one she has conceived Brad Roberts as a crooner, supported by his fellow musicians in lime-green suits, singing to an audience of middle-aged women. This is notable not just because it's hardly the most obvious single on the album, but because it is based around an extended metaphor of oral sex. Roberts sings of the distractions that an overactive intellect causes to intrude upon ecstasy, but then ends with the nub of the matter: 'as I linger' - geddit - 'I wonder if my seed will find purchase in your soil'.

It's a million miles from conventional pop music. But half the time you'd never notice.

Crash Test Dummies play Tea in the Park in Glasgow on 30 July, and Feile in Tipperary on 31 July.

(Photograph omitted)