For 12 years now, Poi Dog Pondering have been doing their thing without paying much attention to the fact that they’re neither well-known in the mainstream or especially hip among indie fans or music critics. And the whole time they’ve been continually evolving: changing members and changing their sound album to album. Since 1995 or so they’ve made their home in Chicago, on their own label Platetectonic Records. Since that point, their albums have highlighted the dance and R&B sides of Poi, without losing the smart, world-traveling quality of their previous albums.
On 1999’s Natural Thing, the band’s fifth studio album, Poi Dog Pondering became a lush, soulful dance band, relying on beautiful R&B vocals and full string arrangements. Their latest release, the live album Soul Sonic Orchestra, finds the band with a similar sound, though a slightly different lineup. Here Poi is especially stressing both the vocal side of the band, with vocalists Carla Prather, Charlette Wortham and Kornell Hargrove using the microphone as often as Poi leader Frank Orrall, traditionally the main singer, and the instrumental side, with lots of time devoted to displaying the musical skills of the 10-plus member band.
At first it seems a bit odd that Poi would choose to release another live album so soon after 1997’s two-disc Liquid White Heat, a live showcase for songs from throughout their career. Yet it doesn’t really matter, because Soul Sonic Orchestra is such a joyful album. Sure, there are songs here that have appeared on numerous Poi releases (like “Ta Bouche Est Tabou,” which is on over half of Poi’s albums in some form), but the purpose here isn’t to create a “greatest hits”-style live album, but to capture the feeling in the air at the particular Poi concerts that this CD is culled from (the three nights up to and including New Year’s Eve, 1999).
That feeling, the atmosphere at any Poi show, is one of fun and beauty, propelled not only by the band’s music but also by their amazingly energetic and happy stage presence, and by Luke Savisky’s unique films that they often use as backdrops (captured here in the album art). Soul Sonic Orchestra includes some of their better-known songs, but also a few great songs off Natural Thing and some fun covers, like a long, energetic version of the disco hit “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now,” a song I never thought too much about before but really enjoy in this context.
Poi Dog Pondering has always been a wonderfully unique phenomenon, a musicians’ collective interested in both electronic dance music and more organic instrumental music, in both having as much fun as possible and in making serious art, based in poetry and gorgeous musical arrangements. Soul Sonic Orchestra doesn’t necessarily move them in a new direction (as I’m sure their next studio album will), but it does capture the place Poi is in at this moment in time, and that is a beautiful thing.