Best tunes of 1991: #24 Crash Test Dummies “Superman’s song”

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For some reason, I don’t remember the moment I discovered “Superman’s song”, though I definitely remember it being a big part of my musical experience back in 1991. It probably started with the music video that gained a lot of traction on MuchMusic and became impossible to avoid for a while, the funeral for the man of steel seeming utterly bleak and impressionable, given its low attendance and guests including almost unrecognizable and aged superheroes. I most certainly purchased the album, Crash Test Dummies’ debut, “The ghosts that haunt me”, on cassette tape on the back of this song and it accompanied me, care of my yellow Sony Sports Walkman on many walks and on the bus rides to and from high school. I have very vivid memories of trying to explain their sound to a girl in our high school library one afternoon during spare period. She had told me that she found the cover art, a turquoise rendering of a Doré print, interesting after noting it on the table I was sitting at, though I later discovered she had a crush on me and couldn’t have cared less about the band. I loved that tape to pieces and would have worn it out had it not been stolen first. It’s also one that I’d love to own on vinyl if it ever gets a reissue.

Crash Test Dummies were a folk rock band that formed in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. I’m pretty sure I’ve read somewhere that the group got their start at an open mike night, varying musicians surrounding songwriter Brad Roberts that eventually solidified into a consistent group. Their original sound was lively folk, featuring traditional instruments, but as the albums started to churn out, became more electric and straightforward rock. What really set them apart, though, was the deep deep bass-baritone of Roberts, especially when blended with Ellen Reid’s angelic backing vocals. The dichotomy was jarring but beautiful.

“Superman’s song” was the group’s very first single and was huge in Canada. And I could be wrong but I thought I heard it said that it was one of the first songs Roberts had ever written. It certainly sounds like it could have been written by a child. There’s something very simple and innocent about it, though dark at the same time, taking for its theme the death of a superhero and imagining what sort of eulogy he would have gotten. It trudges along with the funeral procession, a piano keeping pace and a cello crying in the wings, while Robert’s voice rumbles deep to the bottom of all of our hearts. Yup.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 1991 list, click here.

Vinyl love: The Decemberists “The crane wife”

(Vinyl Love is a series of posts that quite simply lists, describes, and displays the pieces in my growing vinyl collection. You can bet that each record was given a spin during the drafting of each corresponding post.)

Artist: The Decemberists
Album Title: The crane wife
Year released: 2006
Year reissued: 2010
Details: Gatefold sleeve, 2 x LP

The skinny: Anyone who thought The Decemberists would temper their idiosyncratic sound and inventive, yet sometimes esoteric narrative lyrics for their major label debut, obviously never met the Portland-based five-piece. Songs included a prog rock masterpiece and a three part mini-rock opera based on a Japanese folk story, the latter being where this, their fourth album draws its name. Another brilliant work by one of my favourite bands.

Standout track: “O Valencia!”

Best albums of 1997: #4 James “Whiplash”

This album might come as a surprise on this list (for the rest of the list so far, scroll to the bottom) to all but those who know me a bit. For those who don’t, I’ll catch you up.

By the mid 90s, I had gotten into James in a very serious way. First with 1993’s “Laid” and shortly thereafter, with the companion album, 1994’s “Wah wah”. I was truly in love with both of those albums and their big, atmospheric sound, and I was just starting to explore a bit more of their back catalogue when I first laid ears on “Whiplash”.

It happened one night in early 1997 when I was downtown with one of my fellow Creative Writing majors, a real scenester named Darryl (I might have the spelling wrong). We went to a cool British rock influenced night at the Lion’s bar, deejayed by one of Darryl’s friends, and had a blast dancing the night away, fuelled by way too many beers. We got a ride home, all the back up to York University from downtown, with the DJ, and almost immediately, I recognized “Tomorrow” from “Wah wah” being played over the car’s speakers but noted it sounded somewhat different. The DJ, whose name I’ll never remember now, though we became passing acquaintances afterwards, explained that we were listening to an advanced copy of the new James album. From there, it had my attention for the whole way home and I couldn’t wait to get my grubby hands on it for myself.

In my opinion, James is super underrated and unjustly dismissed as a pop band in some circles and a one-hit wonder in others. Their music is beautiful and incredible to dissect but what makes them a cut above is the vocals of Tim Booth and the lyrics he writes for these compositions. “Whiplash” sees the band add some electronic elements to their already full and multi-layered palette and they incorporate it rather successfully.

For me, this album is solid from front to back, much like the rest of the albums coming up in this list, so I made it easy and selected the singles as my three picks for you. Give them a chance and you might just enjoy them.

“She’s a star”: “She’s been in disguise forever. She’s tried to disguise her stellar views.” The first single released off “Whiplash”, “She’s a star” saw James’s return to the UK top ten and even saw some them receive some airplay on alternative radio stations in North America. It is instantly recognizable as James with the big, layered sound and Tim Booth’s inimitable voice, lovely even in falsetto. Which reminds me of when the song was originally released and my friend Sam and I would halfheartedly try our own hands at falsetto whenever it came and hurting everyone else’s ears in the process. It’s a great pop song with sliding guitars and a hinting that nothing is what it seems. Stars have a feelings too.

“Tomorrow”: “I see you falling. How long to go before you hit the ground?” As I mentioned above, it was originally recorded during the “Laid”/“Wah wah” sessions with Brian Eno. The production was cleaned up a ton, the song lovingly lengthened by a minute or so, and released as this album’s second single. It’s a driving and relentless number, frenetic drumming layered with jangly and racing guitars, all held in check by Booth’s close your eyes and sing into the mic with you hands clenched behind your back vocals. But you can tell by his insistence that what he really wants to do is join you and let loose on the dance floor with his usual reckless abandon. You know, that dance of his that actually caused him injury on tour, the one that some say was foreshadowed by this album’s name.

“Waltzing along”: “May your mind let you be. May your heart lead you on.” The interesting thing I found about their singles from “Whiplash” is that the single versions were all quite different than the ones that appeared on the album. I’ve asked my wife Victoria many times, which version she preferred, since this is her favourite on “Whiplash”, perhaps even one of her favourites all time by the band. I’ve even asked her why she likes it so much but I’m not sure she knows. I think it’s the lyrics, which include the phrase at the beginning and this gem: “Help comes when you need it most. I’m cured by laughter.” The whole song is a waltz and the dancer’s partner appears to be his or her depression.

Check back next Thursday for album #3. In the meantime, here are the previous albums in this list:

10. Cornershop “When I was born for the 7th time”
9. The Dandy Warhols “The Dandy Warhols come down”
8. Teenage Fanclub “Songs from Northern Britain”
7. The Mighty Mighty Bosstones “Let’s face it”
6. Ocean Colour Scene “Marchin’ already”
5. Blur “Blur”

You can also check out my Best Albums page here if you’re interested in my other favourite albums lists.