By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Early in Tom Robbins' acclaimed novel, Still Life With Woodpecker, the narrator frets that mere words won't be enough to tell his story. His clacking typewriter's inky letters on parchment won't convey the real essence of his narrative. He pines instead for a "carved typewriter ... its keys living mushrooms, its ribbon the long iridescent tongue of a lizard. An animal typewriter, silent until touched, then filling the page with growls and squeals and squawks, yowls and bleats and snorts, brayings and chatterings and dry rattlings from the underbrush; a typewriter that could type real kisses, ooze semen and sweat."
These are Frank Orrall's same fears and desires. In 20 years of making music, Orrall has struggled to translate the sticky, wet, messy experience of life into living pop music. The earthy songs of his Chicago-based band, Poi Dog Pondering, rock and groove but also hum and throb and breathe and laugh. The tunes have celebrated the human body almost as nakedly as Orrall's lyrics. World beat or Chicago house music rhythms demand dancing, while Orrall — c'mon, a singing poet named Orrall! — sings about everything else you can do with your skin and eyes and hands and fluids. "You're a cup that I hold by the cheekbones / I pull you close and I drink you up." "Muscle and sweat and blood and bones / feel good, feel strong!" "Vim and vigor, full of piss and vinegar / wrapping around, surround and bound by ligaments and skin." "Living With the Dreaming Body," "I've Got My Body," "Ta Bouche Est Tabou," "Collarbone."
That peaty poetry continues on "7," the seventh and latest Poi Dog Pondering record — out Tuesday, and celebrated last Thursday with a sold-out show at the Vic Theatre — with Orrall confessing to a ravenous sexual appetite in "Candy," demanding that someone "spread your love all over me" in "Super Tarana (little golden deer)," which is definitely in the same spirit of "Sticky," and, in perhaps his most conservative lyric yet, pondering the thought of making a "Baby Together."
"There's so much about the life of our bodies, and the life in our bodies, that we ignore or repress. I just sometimes try to sing that unsung stuff," says Orrall during a recent conversation at a South Loop tea house. "But music's about the body and the spirit."
That would be the "rock and soul" dichotomy he insists on applying to "7," the first Poi Dog disc since 2003 and the first in many years to eschew samplers and sequencers and get back to making music with instruments made of wood. They even tracked the whole album using analog tape.
"A lot of that [electronic] stuff was hard to convey live," Orrall says. "A major thing that led to this record was me being out on tour with Thievery Corporation. We were sitting around, and one of the guys said, 'Play me one of your new songs.' And I realized I couldn't play him anything on the guitar. I needed all this gear just to convey my ideas. So I thought, I want to be at a dinner party and be able to play all our new songs with just one acoustic guitar." He smiles. "I gotta say, it feels nice. This record is very ... portable."
Susan Voelz, the band's longtime violin player, agrees. "Frank said he wanted to make some music he could play on the bus, you know, without having to set up backing tracks," Voelz said during a separate interview by phone. "And now we've really got some songs under our fingers. I love it. Every incarnation of Poi Dog is a trip."
Make no mistake, the tunes on "7" are still frequently rhythmic and easily danceable. The only real difference is that the grooves are laid down by congas and body slaps and real drums.
Poi Dog shows are usually writhing affairs, with the audience in near-constant motion. Orrall dances, too. He started as a drummer in his native Hawaii, and he confesses to some songs ("Natural Thing," even the languid "Catacombs") being born not out of lyrical or purely musical ideas but from ways he wanted to move his body on stage. He says he likes going out dancing and never misses "Brazilian night" at Chicago's Sonotheque nightclub.
Part of what attracted Orrall and his band (then based in Austin, Texas) to settle in Chicago early in the '90s was that love of dance and dance music. Arriving in 1992 on the swell of Chicago's most creative house music years, Orrall says the local DJs he encountered furthered his love of "movement music."
'The ego of words'
The core of Poi Dog followed Orrall to Chicago, but Orrall's music had changed. The lyrics almost fell away completely. The "Volo Volo" album originally was completed as an all-instrumental record, which the band's major label at the time politely declined to release; much of that music became the debut of Orrall's first of many side projects, the Palm Fabric Orchestra. Poi Dog released another fairly traditional acoustic-based record, "Pomegranate," in 1995, but Orrall showed his new hand by immediately following it with "Electrique Plummagram," a collection of "Pomegranate" remixes and other electronically derived songs, including some Chicago house music covers.
"I liked the vibe of the electronic stuff a lot," Voelz says, adding that her role as a wooden instrument player was not diminished. "I love trip-hop. I've played with a trip-hop DJ for a while. Instrumentally, the rules changed and the music was different. It wasn't all eight-bar phrases. The melodies took over sometimes as opposed to the lyrics. ... I was at South by Southwest [the annual music festival in Austin, Tex.] last week, and I didn't see Lou Reed, but I read about him saying that emotional music with intelligent lyrics is what you're going for. The emotion of the music has to be there. It melds with the lyrics, but the music can communicate by itself if it has to. Or if it wants to."
This is the direction Orrall says he took his music during the last several years here in Chicago. He stopped writing lyrics. He and Poi Dog dabbled in arranging for orchestra, presenting two acclaimed concerts with the Chicago Sinfonietta, each of which included an electronically buttressed "remix" of first Dvorak's New World Symphony and then "Carmen." He toyed with ambient video creations in relation to music. He collected a lot of plug-in gear.
"I was experimenting with long instrumental passages, feeling that there's so much you can say with music — why clutter it with the ego of words?" he says, hunching up his arms. "Plus, I was getting into this pattern of trying to write songs as opposed to perfunctorily going about writing them. They felt too ego-driven. I basically lost the point for a while. Then, more recently, I just started writing, without expectations, without trying to cram what came to me into four lines, then a chorus, then four more lines. I found I really liked writing long prosaic things rather than in meter. That's when I started getting the material I wanted to get."
Next week, the large ensemble — Orrall has to think for a moment about how many players make up the current incarnation of the revolving-door band (it's 10) — hits the road for a rare cross-country tour. When that's done, they return to play at Ravinia, a venue they haven't graced in a decade.
"We had a record crowd there last time we played," Orrall says. (The show in August 1997 may have been a record for the band, but it wasn't for Ravinia.) "And there wound up being problems with Ravinia's neighbors. It was really a peak time for us, and huge crowds came, and then there were town meetings about it. So we just kind of stayed away." He thinks another moment, sips his tea. "But it felt like time to go back. I guess a lot of this record is about going back."
Poi Dog: Unplugged but charged up
Poi Dog Pondering
The music of Poi Dog Pondering can grow on you, like a mold or a fungus. And if you're really the type of person to embrace an earthy, organic band like Poi Dog, you don't instinctively see that comparison as negative. Molds and fungi are the most basic, strong and pervasive forms of life, and you think that's worth celebrating. Hell, you think it's worth singing about.
The essence of Poi Dog is stated in the refrain of "Outta Yer Head," a song deep into the Chicago ensemble's latest (and seventh) album, "7." Lead singer-songwriter Frank Orrall sings, "C'mon, c'mon, out of your head now / and into your heart." Orall's lyrics and musical sensibility have always come directly from the heart, as both a symbol of romance and nonintellectual motivation as well as an organ of the body pumping its most valuable fluid. Because this record finds the Chicago-based band getting back to basics, performing 14 soulful and neatly arranged pop songs on real instruments as opposed to the samplers and sequencers embraced in previous live and studio outings. And Orrall's got the body and its fluids on his brain more than ever. He wants to spread those fluids around in the not-so-veiled sexual references of "Sticky" ("I'm gonna stick to you, baby / gonna have to pry me loose now"), "Candy" ("I'm gonna eat you from the inside out") and "Super Tarana" ("Spread your love all over me").
The latter two songs are extraordinary — and strangely buried near the end of the disc. "Candy" should be this album's "Complicated," a rousing, escalating rocker that starts out with a simple "mood for something good" and builds to a climax of ferocious physical hunger. "Super Tarana" must have a dozen guitars tracked on the same melody (and in a surprisingly rocking 7/4 time signature), and they sound like a thousand "Wood Guitars." There's some rather dull, by-the-book soul ("Lemon Drop Man," "Baby Together," the almost ambitiously composed "Rusted Weather"), but there are a few moments that conjure the charm of the first record, soft, seeping songs like "Butterflies," which floats on whispers and plucked acoustic guitar and winds up stinging like a bee, and the similarly acoustic-driven (ah, those haunting, beautiful plucks and slides from Susan Voelz's metaphysical violin) "Palm Leaf Effigy," as delicate and beautiful a track as they've recorded in a decade.
With 10 members in this incarnation of the ever-evolving lineup, you could call them the Fleetwood Mac of my generation. But the Mac's songs are usually founded on romantic bitterness and betrayal, and Poi Dog is the warm, polar opposite. Twenty years into their musical career, this album actually limbers them up after their frequently stiff and static electronic experiments of recent years. Here's to the electricity of the unplugged.
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.