Sometimes, being poised on the verge of success can be the most enlightening — and embittering — place for a rock band. For Poi Dog Pondering, the large and amorphous Chicago-via-Austin (but originally from Waikiki) ensemble led by singer/guitarist Frank Orrall, that’s one place they are unlikely to either be willing or welcome to visit again. On the strength of two breezy, folk-tinged debut EPs, Poi Dog was snatched from its road-happy ways and enlisted by the Major Label to make some Alternative Music. (If only they had come along a few years later and been able to take advantage of the rise of neo-hippiedom.) After Columbia repackaged the two EPs together as the band’s eponymous full-length debut, Poi Dog set about making a proper album. Whether owing to Orrall’s faulty effort or to the blinding glare of impending stardom, Wishing Like a Mountain and Thinking Like the Sea betrays the band’s whimsically beautiful music with a slick, hippified mélange of overarching “global musics” and dry, by-the-book folk. Gone, for the most part, is Poi Dog’s gleefully reckless musical abandon, replaced with a studied effort to solidify a sound. The Fruitless EP (two live tracks, a Wishing remix and studio covers of Canned Heat, New Order and Roky Erickson), Jack Ass Ginger (two edits of the titular preview of the forthcoming album, a collaboration with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and two more non-LP tunes) and Volo Volo (which bears an occasional disconcerting resemblance to smart UK popsters like the Smiths, Wedding Present and Waterboys) continue the sad trend. When it was all over, the presumption was that this extraordinarily promising group had come to an end.
Despite appearances, Poi Dog didn’t simply disappear after Volo Volo. Relocating to Chicago in 1992, Orrall enforced a creative hiatus on the band; meanwhile, he put together his funkily exotic Palm Fabric Orchestra’s Vague Gropings in the Slipstream, a masterpiece of instrumental nonchalance. Violinist Susan Voelz took the time to record the first of her two stunning solo albums.
The hiatus proved worthwhile, for when Poi Dog reemerged in 1995 with Pomegranate, the band had not only gotten better, but had also become more conscious of its original intentions. A collection of groovy, danceable numbers propelled by Orrall’s dramatic voice and overly poetic lyricism, Pomegranate manages to recapture both the fun-loving spirit and accomplished musicianship that made Poi Dog such a delight at the start. Electrique Plummagram takes Poi Dog cross-culturing further down a Chicago dance alley, offering clubby remixes of three Pomegranate songs and four new tracks, including a version of Frankie Knuckles’ “Hard Sometimes.”