Sonia Dada deserves its really cool name

Music Notes

Music: in concert, CDs

August 26, 2004|By Rashod D. Ollison

THE NAME is cool: Sonia Dada. It has a nice melodic ring to it. If repeated over and over, it sounds like a prayer chant or something.

Dan Pritzker dug the name, so he decided to give it to his band. Before I asked the songwriter-guitarist about its origin, I thought I would get some long, winding story about the group's otherworldly mission and how Sonia Dada is the name of a star that burns in the east every other year and inspires the band to make music that defies categorization. Or something like that.

Actually, Sonia Dada, Pritzker tells me, is the name of his wife's childhood friend, a Jordanian girl.

"I thought it sounded musical and mellifluous," says Pritzker, who's calling from Chicago.

Test Pattern, the group's sixth and latest album, isn't as sweet-sounding as the band's name. But it's definitely charged. The styles vary and converge song to song, and the performances are inspired throughout. On the album, Sonia Dada throws in everything but a smoked ham hock: You find rave-up gospel, country blues, a little jazz improvisation, a wash of tablas, sitars, mandolins, electro bleeps and pulsing world beats. Rhythmic, ambient layers swirl beneath each track, giving the tunes a slight futuristic feel. And each song radiates a keen sense of melody.

"If you don't have the melody in a song, it's like a ladder with no rungs," Pritzker says. "You got to have something to hold on to."

On Test Pattern, the producer and group chieftain decided to immerse himself in computer wizardry to challenge the rootsy, organic sound Sonia Dada has laid down since forming in 1990.

"We used a lot of computers for samples and arrangements," Pritzker says. "We got a lot of people on stage, so we don't need a lot of machines to reproduce the sounds in concert."

The idea for the album's production style came from a high school art project Pritzker remembered. His class took a famous painting and re-created it using torn-up pieces of paper.

"We recorded songs and re-assembled with samples and rhythmic textures," he says. "It was a real painstaking way of doing things. We wanted to make a highly technical record."

It took two and a half years to complete, but the CD is far from a laborious listen. A little busy at times, yes. But the sonic journey is so rich that you wanna stick around and see how one song folds into the next. A remarkable thing about Test Pattern is that it maintains a nice flow as the styles mutate.

"Growing up, I always loved records where one song flowed into another," Pritzker says, "like the old Stevie Wonder albums like Innervisions and Fulfillingness' First Finale. But Test Pattern was a hard record to make, because it was so computer-oriented and I'm an analog guy. We wanted to meld both worlds, actually."

The mission was accomplished. The CD is so far one of the most interesting, evocative records I've heard all year. Which means pop radio won't touch this baby. Test Pattern has what real music lovers don't get enough of these days: exciting, eclectic musicianship and -- thank goodness -- songs with a pulse.

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