Poi Dog Pondering is a band with a history as interesting as its name. Fronted by charismatic lead singer, Frank Orrall, the band formed in 1985 in Hawaii. Their first album had a distinctive Polynesian flavor. However, the band relocated to Austin, TX where they abandoned their Hawaiian sound and experimented with forms of continental folk music. By 1992 the band had again moved, this time to Chicago which it has called home ever since.
Poi Dog Pondering has always had a shifting rotation of musicians, with Frank leading an ensemble of 6 to 12 players. With the move to Chicago, PDP again shook up their line-up and re-reinvented their sound. Frank added digital sound, loops, synthesizers, and the band sometimes incorporated a DJ into their live performances. The band also brought in a trio of African-American back-up singers and began to explore Chicago’s musical traditions of soul, funk, and house. Ever visionary, PDP added a dance troupe and even explored incorporating independent film and complicated lighting into their live performances.
From about 1997 to 1999, Poi Dog Pondering was just about my favorite band. Their first five studio albums along with their double live album were all in regular rotation in my CD player. I didn’t get the chance to hear them live until the summer of 2003 when I caught them in Lawrence, Kansas. I honestly haven’t paid much attention to them for the past decade.
Their album Natural Thing, released in early 1999, was the last album of theirs that I purchased. Upon first listening to the album, two tracks stood out. Both these tracks featured a guest rapper, which seemed like another novel development in PDP’s musical repertoire. (That one rap was delivered in French made it stand out all the more.) However, after my fascination with these gimmicky tracks diminished, one song stood out head and shoulders above all the others: “That’s the Way Love Is.”
“That’s the Way…” is a cover in which Poi Dog Pondering pays homage to the Chicago house band Ten City who released the song in the late 80s. (You can see the Ten City video of the song here.) “That’s the Way…” begins with a catchy violin intro by Susan Voelz and then the rhythm section jumps in and the song becomes an upbeat dance track. The vocals dominate the song, though. Frank takes the first verse and is followed by the deep, resonant voice of Robert Cornelius who sings the second verse. Arlene Newton ups the ante by soulfully belting out the third verse. However, it is the fourth singer, Kornell Hargrove, who steals the show. Singing high in the upper register, showcasing a vocal range I cannot comprehend, Hargrove sings completely exposed as all the instrumentation drops away. This vulnerable solo adds an amazing touch to the song.
Lyrically, “That’s the Way Love Is” is a melancholy meditation on the hurt caused by love’s unpredictability. In this way, the lyrics stand in sharp contrast to the upbeat dance music. The lyrics talk about how “in love, nothing is for certain.” Love, the lyrics declare, is such a powerful, dynamic and volatile force that is utterly beyond our control. “Lovers leave without reason. Feelings change just like seasons.” At the same time, the lyrics to the song assert that we are not doomed by love’s turbulence. “Young hearts never stay sad long. Another love soon comes along. That’s the way love is.”