The artwork is worth a chuckle, but is the music worth a listen? Sure, and you might even dance to it before it’s done.
Vinyl-wise, country music may your best entertainment value; if you can’t find Dolly Parton’s essential RCA Greatest Hits collections for a dollar, you aren’t trying hard enough. On the other hand, while they don’t produce the same entertainment level per pound, polka records are an equally inexpensive investment, cheap and plentiful especially in neighborhoods that were once hubs of European immigrants. Unfortunately, as far as Spectrum Culture staff is aware, there is no Robert Christgau of polka to hold your hand with informed letter grades and pithy, concise capsule reviews. So unless one is steeped in the lore of the music, that polka record with the funny cover is a crapshoot, its musical value to be determined only after taking a chance on the piles of intriguing yet completely mysterious records clogging your local thrift shop. On one recent dig, a handful of polka records stood out, and among them, the most intriguing artwork belonged to the homegrown graphic charm of Eddie Blazonczyk’s 1984 album Polka Thriller. The artwork is worth a chuckle, but is the music worth a listen? Sure, and you might even dance to it before it’s done.
The infectious rhythm comes not from the signature accordion or concertina, the bane of many an amateur night, but from an unexpected source: the bass. Crank it up. The player is uncredited but the driving beat, such as it is, is recorded up front so on a good system that pulse dominates the recording, providing the bottom much like a tuba might, but with more agility. You might associate polka with stiff, corny rhythms led by the most cornball of lead instruments, but similar rhythms can be heard everywhere from zydeco to Los Lobos, and they’re catchy as hell and not too far off from R&B.
No, that’s not what you get here. Despite the release date, Polka Thriller doesn’t cover any Michael Jackson or play anything remotely like “Bille Jean”(though another artist gave it a convincing polka tribute). The period cover fonts are the height of cheesy and then-trendy graphics, suggesting pong, budget space travel, and those ginormous, early desktop computers. There’s nothing modern about the music here, and good for them. Instead of dated popular genres, what the Versatones supply is plenty of energy and earnestness. Instead of electric guitars wailing power chords, you get squeezebox pumping and brassy choruses. And yet, as the song titles indicate, the concerns of the working polka musician aren’t unlike those of the typical pop star: “Hey Pretty Girl Polka,” “Blond Bombshell Polka” and “Two Girlfriends Polka” pretty much sum up the Versatones’ prime motivator, and the robust, live sound of their performances seems to promise similar performance levels offstage, resulting in future generations of polka lovers.
“Two Girlfriends Polka” must remain a mystery as deep as “Louie Louie,” since it’s one of a few tracks sung in Polish. However, one suspects that the Versatones don’t work blue. This is good, boisterous family fun. Polka Thriller was released on Blazonczyk’s own Bel-Aire label, which he founded in 1963. He died in 2012, but his son Eddie Jr. took over the band in 1997, and the label still exists today. In fact, right now the label is offering a grab bag of 12 vinyl LPs for just $12. That’s cheaper than some thrift store prices, and all for a generous supply of polka. It’s a seductive offer worthy of its own song, “Tempting Grab Bag Polka.” Go ahead, try out that polka record that’s staring you at the face with its naïve graphics and old world charm. You just might like it.