It should come as no surprise that the new full-length by Poi Dog Pondering—the band’s tenth studio album and its first in five years—should trigger nostalgic responses. Even when it first emerged on the scene in the very late eighties, Poi Dog was a breezy, shaggy callback to the kind of sun-soaked, melody-driven hippie fare that had ruled the airwaves twenty years before. And Poi Dog remained true to that counterculture nonchalance, even when it was signed to Columbia Records, embracing whatever groove came along to inspire them rather than hone a distinctive personality and nail down a brand. As a result, the band’s sound became as peripatetic as the actual band (who came to Chicago by way of Waikiki and Austin).
That didn’t serve them well in the great tumult that shook the music world in the nineties (and whose fallout we’re still feeling), and while Poi Dog continued to record (no longer for a major label), it never really managed to hit the national zeitgeist in the way it had at its debut. Come COVID, things got so bad that the band’s frontman, Frank Orrall, found himself taking construction jobs and working as a handyman.
If you go into the new album expecting any of those travails and hardships to tell in the band’s new tunes, you’re in for a surprise; because “Keep On Loving Each Other” is, as the title suggests, as buoyant, bright and relaxed as anything Poi Dog has ever done. The only difference, to my hearing, is a kind of joyous self-confidence that radiates from the very first track; these guys seem to have figured out that free spirits don’t need to fit into a brand; “free spirits” is a brand. And here they graze contentedly all over the genre dial.
The opener, “Do It Your Own Way,” immediately impresses with the fullness of its sound; after a jaunty guitar intro, we get horns and strings, plus a chorus of backup vocalists. Orrall sings, “I’m not afraid to start over / I am no stranger to manual labor”—the only reference to his recent bottoming out, and not remotely a self-pitying one—then launches into an irresistibly catchy exhortation to “Stand up / Speak your mind / Follow your heart / Try to be kind.” It’s a hoary old hippie refrain, but—maybe it’s the times—it now sounds so urgent and so important, and Orrall is clearly not just sincere, but ecstatically so.
“Free & Easy” has an almost yacht-rock feel, with, again, a small complement of additional players (I particularly liked what I heard of Paul Von Mertens’ flute). The songwriting is topflight; there’s a chord shift midway that opens onto an exhilarating bridge, and additional ravishing changes follow in “Sweet Taste in My Mouth,” which features a more layered arrangement and some lovely, yearning horns.
“Tender Little Heart” wafts in with a straight-up soul-pop vibe—beginning with a crooned “Oooh baby” that knocks you back decades. It’s got a sweetly strutting rhythm, a bouncing, descending horn line and a smooth trumpet solo. Then “Bespeckled Angel” seriously switches up the genre-borrowing; it’s a driving folk-rock ballad, with some wonderfully evocative lyrics.
Star map made of freckles
Hair tousled and tumbled
Wrapped up in a bed sheet
As I said at the top, the album hits some nostalgic trigger points—and one of them, for me, was entirely unexpected. As someone who grew up listening exclusively to vinyl (because that’s pretty much all there was), I can faithfully attest to the phenomenon, not uncommon, of becoming so enamored of a certain album’s Side A that its Side B became a bit of a wallflower, the platter rarely, if ever, getting flipped. At this writing, “Keep On Loving Each Other” is only available digitally, but if it ever does have an LP incarnation, I’m guessing its listeners might act as here described. This isn’t to say that there aren’t genuine pleasures in the album’s final five tunes—“The Rome Song” is a lovely guitar ballad with some gorgeously evocative strings, the baroque intro to “Licked All the Sugar” is exquisitely pretty and the disco-inflected title track features the album’s sharpest lyrics (“I was distracted doing some casual research / On a glass of wine at the dining room table”)—but in general, Side B (I’m going to just call it that because I can) is juuuust sufficiently more diffuse in its pleasures that I find myself—for the time being, anyway—a Side A guy. Contrary opinions, however, are encouraged. Give the album a listen and see what you think.
“Keep On Loving Each Other” is available for streaming and download on Poi Dog Pondering’s Bandcamp page.
Robert Rodi is an author, spoken-word performer and musician who has served as Newcity’s Music Editor since 2014. He’s written more than a dozen books, including the travel memoir “Seven Seasons In Siena,” and his literary and music criticism has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, Salon, The Huffington Post and many other national and regional publications.