Poi Dog Pondering- “7” (2008)
A tree grows in your backyard for many years and the branches spread and the leaves flesh out, providing more shade with each summer. Flowers blossom, a few at first, giving the tree a smattering of color. And then one day you throw open the curtains and your tree is a gorgeous burst of red, purple, yellow and blue. The ever-evolving music of Poi Dog Pondering, whose leader Frank Orrall I’ve known for over 25 years, always has me thinking in terms of nature. The Hawaiian-born, Austin-educated, Chicago-based band has just released an album that is finally everything they started out to be when they rolled into Austin in 1987, blowing tin whistles in this harmonica town. Earlier Poi albums, especially the electronic period that began with 1995’s “Pomegranate,” don’t prepare you for “7’s” nod to Johnny Rotten on “Super Tarana” or the sassily hedonistic “Candy” or a bouncy rocker called “Lemon Drop Man” that could’ve come out on Kama Sutra Records in the ’70s except that it’s about a heroin overdose.
This sample-free rock record, which comes out 20 years after the band’s debut, is not entirely a departure. But even the songs that sound like Poi songs sound somewhat different, with Orrall’s too-clean vocals mixed down to make this truly sound like a rock band and not a lead singer and his backing musicians. The preciousness is dialed down on the simply lovely “Perfect Song,” while “Heaven Only Knows” are words written across a blue sky on a breezy day. The soul-pop of “Rusty Weather,” meanwhile, is right in Poi’s wheelhouse of innocence (or sappiness, as some would say).
Orrall says the songs on this seventh studio album were initially inspired when he was on tour, playing percussion for Thievery Corporation, a D.C.-based hip-hop bossa nova act that also features Poi’s John Nelson. “After a show we were sitting around with guitars, and someone asked me to sing a song from one of our newer records,” Orrall says. “And I just sat there, stumped. There’s so much use of sequencers and sampling on the last few records that I couldn’t play a single song on a guitar.”
Refocused, Orrall and company set out to make an album as if all the new studio gadgets had not yet been invented. They blocked out two solid months at Wall2Wall in Chicago and basically lived there while the record was being made. “After using ADAT and Pro Tools and all that (to record anywhere), I wanted to get back to the days when bands would hole up in a studio for months, to see what they could come up with.”
Poi Dog entered the studio in late 2006 with an album’s worth of material and ended up writing nine more with the tape rolling.
As the songs started taking shape, Orrall says, he had two main artists in mind, underrated Chicago soul singer Tyrone Davis (“If I Could Turn Back the Hands of Time”) and the rollicking Faces of Rod Stewart.
The album’s best song, with words by violinist Susan Voelz and music by Orrall, yearns like Davis and rolls like the Faces, without sounding too much like either. Orrall sings “From This Moment On” from a female point of view, but the message of renewed optimism is universal. “Your life has been a poem/written from a broken wrist,” he sings. “I’ve watched you fall in love/I’ve seen you fall apart.” The band kicks out a liberating rhythm, the strings and horns soaring in the jubilation of a heart finally feeling true. “From this moment on, everything will change,” is the mantra disguised as a chorus. “I will know you now. Your life is yours again.”
“Organic” is a word that’s been used to describe Poi Dog as often as Howard Stern has been called a “shock jock.” But on “7,” “organic” sounds less like music harvested with care and more like a growing organism, as if the songs will add and peel layers over time.
It’s the best album Poi Dog Pondering has yet made, though it’s not as instantly likable as the band’s two Austin LPs, which gave us “Pulling Touch,” “Living With the Dreaming Body” and “Everybody’s Trying.” The new LP is what’s known as an “active listen,” meaning it’s more challenging but ultimately more satisfying if you give it a chance.
But one song on “7” requires a catlike click on the “skip” button. “Baby Together” recasts Paul Anka’s “Havin’ My Baby” as a disco number to prove that two wrongs make a right like two rocks make an omelette. “I can’t help it,” says Orrall, who has never worried about how his musical expressions will be taken. “If I feel something, I’ll sing it, no matter how goofy it is.”
Often knocked for cheerfulness bordering on naivete, Poi Dog has sometimes gotten a bad rap from critics looking to have their hip card punched. But if the name on the cover of “7” were Beck or Wilco, instead of one associated with hippy dippiness, the album would be deemed one of the year’s best.
Away from Chicago, where they once sold out the 1,200-capacity Vic Theatre four nights in a row, Poi Dog plays to medium-sized audiences whose loyalty is through the roof. And they’ve maintained that fan base with invigorating live shows.
Although Orrall has been the only constant in the Poi Dog lineup, which started out playing for tips in Waikiki in 1986, violinist Voelz, guitarist Ted Cho and Dave Max Crawford have been in the band for almost two decades. Guitarist Dag Juhlin (ex-Slugs) joined more than 10 years ago, and percussionist Nelson, an on-and-on-again Poister, goes back with Orrall to the ’80s when they played in Hawaiian Afro-pop band Pagan Babies.
The musical communication between these players and the newer members springs from the pure joy of playing together. And the connection between Orrall and Voelz, whose sweeping violin is the soul of the sound, has gotten stronger on a personal level: After 15 years as platonic bandmates, the two have become a couple in the past couple of years.
“The live shows have been better than ever,” Orrall says. “We play everything from every aspect of our career, so the memories come flying back.”
As with most bands, they love to play the new stuff, which is a plus in this case. This seventh studio album sounds like numbers one through six were access roads, or scenic routes, to this most wonderful destination.