Okay, listen up. It’s time for us all to head to Eastern Europe (and Cleveland, Ohio) as I think about my Slovak and Polish roots and review two wonderful polka albums released at the end of 2020 by the Cleveland-based Chardon Polka Band: Oh No! Not Again! and A Very Polka Christmas.
Now, polka music has been a special genre for me since I can remember.
It’s not just because my people hail from the region of Czechoslovakia that became Slovakia, as well as from Poland and Hungary. It’s also due to the fact that my grandma (“Baba” in Slovak, meaning “old woman”) and mom used to watch “the polkas” on public television almost every Saturday night when I was growing up.
For those interested, some of their favorite artists included polka mainstays such as Frankie Yankovic, Jimmy Sturr, and the Kryger Brothers.
When one is seven years old, which I was for about a year, polka might not necessarily resonate with one as a particularly attractive style of music.
I saw old people watching it. I saw old people dancing to it. Therefore, I didn’t want to like it.
Of course, these days, I don’t know what I was thinking at seven. I was deficient, I guess.
The fact is that, perhaps due to the power of musical repetition over the years, I now find polka music to be a wildly entertaining genre that seems capable of making me happy no matter how I’m feeling.
Well, how could it not? With this dance music’s lively combinations of accordions, clarinets, saxophones, and drums, as well as its trademark lyrical humor, I’m surprised I’m not shoveling polka music into my chronically agitated and deep-fried cerebral cortex for hours on end.
Anyway, let’s talk about the Chardon Polka Band, who were kind enough to provide me with access to their eight and ninth studio releases for this review.
Oh No! Not Again!
So, if you read the biographical information of the band on their website, you’ll see they refer to themselves as eccentric.
That’s good! Because they said it before I did!
This is a great thing actually. If there’s one thing this band ain’t, it’s typical.
The lineup on the Oh No! Not Again! album is as follows:
- Mike Franklin (banjo/guitar/bass/vocals)
- Jake Kouwe (accordion/cordovox/vocals/bandleader)
- Emily Kouwe (saxophone/flute/vocals)
- Mitch Lawrence (saxophone/clarinet/vocals)
- Bob Young (drums/percussion)
I like that these are young guys (like 30s) playing a sort of old-fashioned style of music, and with tremendous energy.
This album is a mix of some polka oldies (Yankovic’s “Just Because” and Ralph Sieger’s “In Heaven There Is No Beer”), an original polka (Jake Kouwe’s “Take Two Beers and Call Me in the Morning,” a favorite of mine here), and, interestingly, a smattering of mid-90s alt-rock covers (Semisonic’s “Closing Time,” Deep Blue Something’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” and Smash Mouth’s “All Star”).
I love the influences here. At once, you hear the band’s polka forebears right alongside the 90s rock bands that the band members likely heard growing up.
Oh No! Not Again! makes me happier with each listen. The positive vibes of “I Saw a Rainbow,” the utter insanity of “The Laughing Polka” (just listen to it yourself), and the good, old-timey feels of “Cleveland the Polka Town/Beer Barrel” keep the album going strong all the way through.
Since I’m always thinking about the relationship between music and emotions, I know for a fact that this is one album I will return to when I need to go goof off for a bit while enjoying some quality tunes.
One song I need to mention specifically: a track near the end of the record has the band humorously appearing to step in at a concert for a different group that had to cancel. The Chardon Polka Band then launches into a rock-polka rendition of the folk/blues standard “Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor.”
Now, I know this song from the repertoire of the gentle country bluesman Mississippi John Hurt (d. 1966). It’s so nice to hear the blues getting some attention from a modern polka band in this way. This is clearly a group that knows and cherishes musical history.
Oh No! Not Again! is pure fun and lots of positive energy, and I’m thrilled that I’ve been exposed to it.
A Very Polka Christmas
Before wrapping things up, I want to mention the Chardon Polka Band’s other new release, A Very Polka Christmas.
People who know me fairly well know that I’m not much for Christmas music. I enjoy it, but I rarely go all out to listen to it (Jethro Tull’s version of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” is a year-round favorite for me, however).
But with this album, I derive much more satisfaction from the music because the songs are played in that characteristically joyful Chardon Polka Band style.
There’s a bunch of Christmas classics here, such as “Angels We Have Heard on High” and “Away in a Manger.” They’re interspersed with some interesting nuggets, such as the solid Kouwe original “Andrew the Mailman” and the partly-a-cover-song “Kielbasa for Christmas,” which is actually a reworked version of Stan Freberg’s 1955 comedic Christmas song “Nuttin’ for Christmas.”
(Now listen, on kielbasa: I just got into kielbasa after mostly rejecting it throughout my Slovak upbringing. Except, I don’t like steaming it like it’s classically done. I cut off chunks of fresh kielbasa and pan-fry them like normal breakfast sausage. Is that okay with you?)
For the most part, the classic tunes here are reproduced faithfully, but obviously there’s a lot of accordion and other polka goodness injected into them. That gives them a freshness that I really appreciate.
Special mention: my favorite song is the band’s version of “We Three Kings.” The closing track is played with an almost frenetic urgency that makes it another polka-rock type of performance. I’ve listened to that song over and over while working to make me more productive (it works).
Listen, I didn’t know who the Chardon Polka Band was two months ago. But I’m extremely happy that I do now. This band has obviously made a big name for itself, and not just in the Cleveland area, as a pretty zany and fun act.
Go check out their performances and music videos on their YouTube channel to get a feel for what I mean.
I’ve really enjoyed covering the two new releases Oh No! Not Again! and A Very Polka Christmas by the Chardon Polka Band here on this blog. I do hope everyone reading this who likes polka checks them out.
Stay tuned for next time on MusicalRecord.com, when I will report on my efforts to funnel polka music into my body intravenously.