The big city has been good for Poi Dog Pondering. This bohemian string band, founded in Hawaii and long based in Austin, Tex., was once best known for its quirky world-music borrowings and whimsical lyrics. After getting dropped by Columbia Records in 1992, the band's inner core -- singer-songwriter Frank Orrall, keyboardist Dave Max Crawford and violinist Susan Voelz -- relocated to Chicago. There they encountered the streetwise dance beats of the Windy City's house-music scene and discovered how an R&B groove gave their amorphous sound some much-needed backbone. That discovery pays handsome dividends on "Natural Thing," only the second studio album from Poi Dog since 1991 but the best release of the group's career. In much the same way that funk reinvigorated the Talking Heads and their floppy-limbed, dadaist leader, David Byrne, so has house music galvanized Poi Dog Pondering and the floppy-limbed, dadaist Orrall. The reconstructed Poi Dog is now an 11-person ensemble pushed along by two horns and the aggressive drumming of Steve Goulding (formerly of Graham Parker & the Rumour). The band proves its R&B chops on such Chicago house classics as Ten City's "That's the Way Love Is" and Frankie Knuckles's "Hard Sometime." These new urban influences haven't obliterated Poi Dog's former pastoral charm, however. The new album also has moments of lovely lushness as on the flute-flavored cover of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's "Tana Dery Na" or on Orrall's own synth reverie, "Diva." Best of all is the way the chamber-music strings of Paul Mertens's "Octavio" set the stage for Orrall's seductive valentine, "Beautiful to Meet You." Poi Dog Pondering may have adjusted to the big city, but they haven't forgotten the boondocks they left behind.
Appearing Friday at the 9:30 club.
To hear a free Sound Bite from Poi Dog Pondering, call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press 8125. (Prince William residents, call 690-4110.)
CAPTION: Singer-songwriter Frank Orrall of Poi Dog Pondering.