Thursday, May 29, 2008

Poi Polloi

Poi Dog Pondering is a world music/folk music/soul music/alternative music assembly from Chicago, Illinois by way of Austin, Texas, by way of Waikiki, Hawaii. Seriously. Led by singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Frank Orrall, and featuring a rotating throng of talented musicians, they've been recording and playing their all-inclusive brand of vagabond melodies for 20 years now. On April 1, they released their seventh studio album and gave it the logical title ...

7 by Poi Dog Pondering (p. Frank Orrall, Martin Stebbing and Ted Cho)

How can you not love a band that gives you a poster featuring recipes for pasta and minestrone packaged in their CD?

Poi Dog Pondering has been cooking up tasty musical recipes for years and their latest album, 7, boasts some of their most nourishing melanges.

Beginning as a tuneful but somewhat fey folk outfit from the unlikely locale of Waikiki, Hawaii, they have gradually added more and more muscle to their sound without ever shedding their troubadour foundations. With their 1992 move to Chicago, they began to incorporate elements of electronica and house music alongside the traditional sounds and the result has been some of the most remarkably inclusive music in recent memory. The cliche about music is that it brings people together, but far more often, it's used as a wall to divide us along lines of age, culture, ethnicity, hipness and just plain old orneriness. Poi Dog Pondering is that rare outfit that actually punches a few holes in those walls.

Having travelled the musical landscape for two decades, PDP now comes full circle back to the more traditional instrumentation of their earlier records, while still incorporating the lessons learned from their forays into more modern sounds. Guitars and violins and horns take center stage with synthesizers brought in only for the occasional fill or wash of color. Still, the songs on the new album are far more beat-heavy and soulful than the Waikiki band could have ever pulled off. Or ever would have tried.

7 is named such as the seventh studio album the band has released. In his liner notes, main Poi Dog Frank Orrall also mentions how it has some tangential relation to T. E. Lawrence's The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, a book he was given by his father, who has since passed. Lyrically, there's something of the Seven Deadly Sins running throughout, especially good old fashioned lust. The thing about the Sins is that while they can be destructive, they are also us at our most flawed and therefore, at our most human.

Since the band began, Orrall has been a sensualist, reveling in tastes and scents and sounds. And in this giggling, snickering age, his depictions of sexuality have always been refreshingly (sorry for the bad pun) frank.

In "Baby Together," he makes no effort to hide his seductive intent. "I'm like a river that loves to run/Wild and rushing along your river bank skin/ Maybe we could make a baby together." Elsewhere in "Candy," he echoes Joyce at the end of Ulysses: "Lay your coat down in the grass/Open your arms baby/ Yes, yes ... Yes!" Things get even more graphic in "Super Tarana" but there, the intent transforms as all the sensuality becomes a gateway to a deeper understanding of love. Perhaps remembering the father he mentions in the liner notes, Orrall concludes "The dead have only love left to give the living."

It's that power of love that all the sensuality aims for. In "Lemon Drop Man," Orrall forcefully wishes for a chance to use that love to counter the drugs that took the life of his friend Matthew Morrison. Rarely has love been described so graphically. "If I could cook all the love in a teaspoon/And stick the needle in your heart/I wouldn't have to lose you."

But potent as the lyrics are, the strongest expression of love is in the music, driving rock and roll with a huge horn-driven chorus and transcendent harmonies provided by Charlette Wortham, Kornell Hargrove, Susan Voelz and Dag Juhlin, PDP stalwarts all.

Finally, on "Space Dust," Orrall shows where all the love leads, to the ultimate act of creation, the Big Bang. The science of life becomes poetry, a rich tapestry of interwoven bits of light and dirt: "We're just space dust, moon beams, electricity and soul." The world around is awesome enough without imposing some arbitrary mythology on top of it.

"And you know
We're on our own
In our own reality.
And you know
That when it snows
It falls because of gravity.
Ain't no little spacemen gonna come and save you."

Amen, brother!

4 stars.

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