June 28, 2007

Eddy Wasilewski’s Polka Band – Recorded Live at a Polish Party

Filed under: instrumental,polka — norm. @ 8:01 pm

Recorded Live at a Polish Party - front coverPolka. You either love it or hate it, but there is one thing you can not do when the oompah band starts playing: sit quietly. The good people at Tifton International seemed to recognize this when they called up all their Polish friends to come listen to Eddy Wasilewski’s Polka Band for Recorded Live at a Polish Party.

The concept of this record is clear from the very beginning; as soon as the needle hits, we don’t start off by hearing the accordion or the horns; we here the drunken cheers of a room full of Poles having a party. Whether the title of this album is truthful or not, we’re certainly intended to believe it is, with all that implies–Polka music is not enjoyed in concert halls with a quiet audience waiting until the end of the song to applaud politely; Polka music is played in bars and at parties and in dance halls. Polka, is after all, not just a style of music; it’s a dance to be performed along with that music. It only makes sense that a record like this would incorporate what is in practice an essential part of the polka experience; rowdy partiers, hooting and hollering, singing along and forgetting the words, but having too much fun to care.

That speaks to what this album does best, but also to the paradox inherent in it—who is this album for? If you’re a Pole inviting all your Polish friends over for your own Polish Party, playing this record seems redundant; why do you need a recorded drunken sing-along when undoubtedly you’ve got your own right there? And who plays a party record like this otherwise? The hard-core polka fans out there would probably find this album lacking in quality. One can only assume it is aimed at the lonely, friendless single Poles out there, who long to be part of the polka party, drinking alone and weeping over their kielbasa.

Of course hard-core polka fans out there today are a dwindling population, and while polka appreciation isn’t in any real danger of extinction, it is becoming less of a respected musical form and more of a novelty; witness Weird Al. But then, who cares? Polka was never meant to be serious stuff; it’s about dancing and having a good time. Lamenting the decline of the polka as a respected musical form is like lamenting the demise of the twist. The difference is that Chubby Checker had the definitive version of the song that is associated with that dance, despite all the follow-ups and copycats. Whereas nobody except the polka purists knows or cares who’s playing a polka, because it’s polka. Does it matter that it’s Eddy Wasilewski’s Polka Band playing these songs, as opposed to Frankie Yankovic? Frankie Yankovic may be the polka king, but when the “Beer Barrel Polka” comes on, you sing along without thinking who’s holding the accordion.

The cover to this album reinforces that; Eddy’s name is only the third biggest line on the front, even smaller than “recorded live”. “Polish Party” is in huge letters, because that’s all you need to know about this album: it’s a party. And even in the pictures, the focus is on the suitably Polish-ly dressed partiers, with streamers and balloons; the guy with the accordion (one would guess it’s Eddy Wasilewski himself) is way in the back in two pictures, off in the corner of one of those, and there’s not even a band member present in the middle photo.

The cover also exhibits what is in my opinion one of the strangest phenomena of vintage record covers: the random track listing. I understand the desire to advertise on the front the familiar tunes that might entice you to buy the album, but why are they so frequently, as in this case, just randomly ordered? I could understand if there was some logic to it, but there rarely is. It’s not the order they appear on the record. It’s not the order of popularity of the songs. It’s not even alphabetical. Some albums of this era have the good sense to only put the popular songs on the front, followed by the routine “…And Many More!”, but this one, as many do, insists on putting them all out there, and just jumbling them up for no good reason.

At least the first track listed on the cover is actually the first track on the album, the “Pennsylvania Polka”. It’s one of those songs that anybody with any exposure to Polka has heard, but like the partying Poles on the record, nobody seems to remember the words, other than “the Pennsylvania Polka” (and of course, it’s conversely worded alternate lyric, “the Polka from Pennsylvania”). That’s fine, because you feel right at home singing “da da, da da da” right along to the melody. A bit of an unusual choice, perhaps, given that this is quite obviously pointed out to be a party for the Polish, and the opener is a song that revolves around the main point that it comes from a specific American state.

Clip: Pennsylvania Polka

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In fact, all the few intelligible lyrics to be heard on the record are sung in English, and nary a Polish word is heard. The whole Polish angle is probably due to the mistaken assumption by the record executives at Tifton International in planning a record like this that polka is of Polish origins (it’s not—it originated in Bohemia, which is now part of the Czech Republic), but that’s just being nit-picky, and it’s not really a flaw of the record. Nobody was going to buy this album to make them more culturally aware.

One thing they may have bought it for was to hear some mean accordion playing, and the second song delivers on that account. “Old Time Oberek” has some fancy accordion fireworks, although it’s not technically a polka (at the risk of stating the obvious, it’s an oberek—think waltz, but in the polka style). But there I go nit-picking again.

Clip: Old Time Oberek

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The album continues predictably, going through more of the same. Again, that’s not a flaw; nobody wants anything new from a polka band–they expect more of the same. There are several occasion-themed polkas: weddings, birthdays, and apparently playing dominoes. It’s hard to imagine a polka record without the “Beer Barrel Polka”, and it’s here, which raises another question: the front cover proclaims this to be “Volume II”; if the most recognizable polka song of all time is on volume II, what the hell was on volume I? Maybe volume I was for the hard-core polka lovers, and this is just the cash-in sequel, for the sell-outs.

Clip: Beer Barrel Polka

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The back cover of the album tries to draw us in further by encouraging us to “LET YOURSELF GO… Join in the fun…you’re at an ‘honest-to-hopping’ Polish Party.” I have to assume that “honest-to-hopping” is a traditional Polish (or at least Polish-American) phrase; it must have fallen out of favor, because a Google search for it returned exactly zero results. It further explains how they threw an actual Polish Party specifically to record this album. Party is always capitalized, as if it is a proper noun; maybe it’s a political party, not just a dance party, like Solidarność.

It goes on to praise “the artistry of Eddy Wasilewski, one of the most knowledgeable specialists in the songs, music and dance of the Polish people.” I, for one am impressed that he is knowledgeable in both songs and music, not just one or the other. And to drive the point home, there Eddy stands in the big circular picture (I assume) with his accordion, behind a table covered in empty beer bottles and two of the homeliest people ever to don garish folk attire.

Recorded Live at a Polish Party - back cover

Along the side, above the track listing (where we learn that the song titled “Another Oberek” is actually subtitled “Young Men’s Oberek”—apparently that wasn’t dismissive enough), is the “technical data section” which informs us that the “vivid, spontaneous excitement” on this record “could only have been captured through the magic of Tifton LSS (Live Sound Series) recording technique. At first I assumed that the magical technique was putting a microphone in a room full of drunken Poles and pressing “record” on the tape machine. Reading further, however, I discovered that it actually is “of the finest quality sound fidelity that can be achieved with a multiple microphone pickup”; that is, they put two microphones in a room full of drunken Poles and pressed record. An “acoustically perfect” room, I might add; the sound quality must not be dampened one iota by the puffy shirts and tables of empties.

Then it goes on to do something I think is fairly unusual on any record, much less a polka party record where sound quality, despite all their high-fidelity ad copy, is really unimportant: it lists specifically by brand the equipment used. It of course is common for metalheads to list the gear sponsorships they have in the liner notes in order to sell more Dean Markley guitar strings, but what polka fan is going to say, “I wasn’t going to buy this record until I read that they used a McIntosh 200 watt amplifier!”

The bottom line of this album is that it’s a polka album. Even if you don’t believe that the pictures on the cover are of the people you hear on the record, it is what it says it is. If you want to listen to polka, then it’s a good thing to listen to. If you don’t like polka, then all the drunken Poles in Poland (or America) won’t make it any better. The energy is certainly there, though, so even if you only want to listen to polka once every papal election, when the urge hits, this is a good record to have around. Or as good as any.

[rating: 3.5]

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