Album of the Week, May 31: Poi Dog Pondering

PoiDogPonderingWaikiki musician Frank Q. Orrall dreamed up the name Poi Dog Pondering as a description of his approach to music. “Poi dog” is Hawaiian slang for a mutt; Orrall felt that the combination of the terms reflected the intricacies and absurdities of the human condition. He quickly attracted a group of like-minded performers, crafting a charming acoustic folk sound with elements of world music. Core members Dave Max Crawford (brass) and Susan Voelz (violin) contributed to the rich, eclectic sound of the evolving group. The band embarked on a yearlong busking tour around the US, eventually landing in Austin, TX and settling into a fairly stable line-up that included Ted Cho (guitar, mandolin, banjo), Bruce Hughes (bass, steel guitar, piano), Adam Sultan (guitar, recorder), and John Nelson (congas, percussion). The group gained a faithful local following and recorded two EPs — Poi Dog Pondering and Circle Around the Sun — for Texas Hotel. Their unique sound, smart lyrics, and laid back humor attracted major label attention, and Columbia signed the group, merging the two EPs into their stunning major label debut.

Title Poi Dog Pondering
Act Poi Dog Pondering
Label Columbia / Texas Hotel Release Date September 12, 1989
Producer Poi Dog Pondering and Mike Stewart
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
  1. Living With the Dreaming Body
  2. Fall Upon Me
  3. Postcard For A Dream (Toast and Jelly)
  4. Pulling Touch
  5. Sound of Water
  6. Fact of Life
  7. Circle Around the Sun
  8. Aloha, Honolulu
  9. Wood Guitar
  10. Falling

Despite its relatively large line-up, Poi Dog Pondering featured a significant number of “Satellite PDP Members.” Notable on their early recordings are drummers Dick Ross and Sean Coffey (permanent drummer Darren Hess joined in 1990), cellist Mark Williams, bassist Steve Bernal, and vocalist/accordion player Abra Moore. With nearly 20 musicians, things could have sounded cluttered. Instead, Orrall’s distinct musical vision and the band’s easy-going democratic approach lets everything fit in smoothly.

Nothing could set the tone better than Living With the Dreaming Body. Orrall’s sprightly tin whistle drives the music along; his vocals are charming, playing with serious, comic, and ironic moments all in an “isn’t life grand” delivery. The band swirl around him, following the whistle’s lead while creating a tight musical net. For a song about metaphysics and job dissatisfaction, it’s entirely uplifting. That’s PDP in a nutshell.

Fall Upon Me blends nature and romance in a lovely, strolling melody. The charming amble after the philosophical jig sets up the rest of the tracks perfectly. Postcard From A Dream is a joyous, thoughtful romp. Piano and accordion take the lead on this one, diversifying the sound without seeming disjointed. The track features a giddy coda that would seem precious in less capable hands; its sincere celebration of the mundane actually works.

Pulling Touch is one of the band’s finest moments ever. A sensual song filled with natural imagery, it brings together all the PDP elements into a cohesive, romantic whole. The complex percussion and swirling violin and cello add all the right texture, and Orrall’s voice is spectacular, making use of his full range. Sound of Water is the most aptly named track, a gentle, quiet track that celebrates nature and natural balance. The first EP’s tracks close with another standout. Fact of Life is one of the most joyful song’s about death out there. “Don’t ask why, it’s a fact you die.” Since that’s true, make the most of every moment, the band says, and they lead by cheerful musical example.

Circle Around the Sun was a more experimental disc, and its four tracks point to future PDP directions. The title track is a  jazzy number driven by Crawford’s spectacular trumpet. Orrall speak-sings another celebration of life with optimism and determination. The music rewards him, building to a grand conclusion.

Aloha Honolulu is a whimsical little number that works because of the band’s light touch and sincerity. It’s a nice tribute to their origins and the least complicated track on the album. Things get heavy from there, musically rather than lyrically. A fairly straightforward celebration of music, Wood Guitar is an electric tour-de-force that shows PDP can rock the folk. It’s dramatic but never over the top and shows off the big group’s tight musical chops.

Ideally, that would wrap things up. Instead, we’re treated to Falling, the closest thing to a misstep on this lovely album. The music is fine indeed, with Voelz turning in a nice violin line. The lyrics are a nice PDP swirl of images, lightweight compared to most of the disc, but fine. Sadly, guest vocalist Abra Moore — who is a fine singer — has a style that clashes with the tone of the album. The song works, just, but doesn’t quite fit. In live shows, Falling is frequently a violin-driven instrumental, something that works much better.

That minor glitch aside, this is a stellar album. Musically complex but very approachable, lyrically smart but never smug, it’s full of life and joy, a true celebration. More bands should make thinking about life so fun.

FURTHER LISTENING: Poi Dog Pondering’s next two albums featured their most stable lineup. Wishing Like A Mountain and Thinking Like the Sea is a worthy successor to the debut, but is a bit overproduced and not quite as consistent. Orrall and company wanted to grow and change, pursuing a variety of musical interests that wove in more dance elements. Columbia wasn’t pleased and it took over two years for Volo Volo to reach the market. It’s much more consistent, even in its diversity, but doesn’t quite reach the highs of the first two discs. After breaking with Columbia, Orrall moved the band to Chicago, leading a revolving door of lineups with a much slicker, house inspired sound. Pomegranate is a pretty solid transitional album. After that, the group’s output is sporadic but consistent.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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