Album Remarks & Appraisals:
An eclectic international cast of characters including an internationally renowned violin soloist, the Met's contrabassonist, an Israeli rhythm section, the head of iTunes Classical, and the most famous didgeridoo player in the world met in a New Jersey studio to record a polka album just for fun, and an idea that began as a joke quickly grew into an eccentric, virtuosic, and energetic exploration of folk, country, classical, and jazz. From the American Midwest to the mountains of Bohemia, 'Apolkalypse Now' is the only album of 2009 that poses the question: "Would you like sauerkraut with that?"
"The 2010 Grammy ceremonies will have one less award to give out with the decision to drop the Polka category from the official Best Album listing, the stated reason being that the awards need to remain "pertinent within the current musical landscape." No matter that the musical landscapes in places like Chicago, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Buffalo are still filled with the happy sound of Polka music or that bands like Brave Combo and Headless Household have been creatively redefining and expanding the genre during the past several decades. In a similar vein comes Polkastra with their cleverly put together and musically superb Apolkalypse Now.
This is not your grandmother's polka music and although she will know tunes like the "Clarinet Polka," she will hear them played by an instrumental aggregation that includes contrabassoonist Mark Timmerman and Australian didgeridoo master William Barton. Violinist Lara St. John and trumpeter Daniel Lapp are the pair of Canadians who front this band and they, along with the rest of their band mates that include French hornist Andy Doe, bassist Jack Campbell and percussionist Yuval Edoot, are excellent musicians who produce some captivating voicings in the context of tight arrangements from Matt Van Brink.
St. John impresses most and her fiddle can not only polka but also play bluegrass, classical and jazz. The band's musicianship shines through as other musics are skillfully woven through these arrangements: Beethoven into the classically-inspired "Ludwig Van Polka"; a Roumanian "Sirba" beautifully presented by Edoot on vibes; the countrified "Knife, Fork and Spoon" and a touching interpretation of the Jewish "Araber Tanz" on didgeridoo. If there was a Grammy this year, be assured that Apolkalypse Now would be challenging for the top Polka spot." -AllAboutJazz
Composer: Daniel Lapp.
Lyricists: Daniel Lapp; Lara St. John.
Personnel: William Barton (didjeridu); Daniel Lapp (vocals, guitar, fiddle, trumpet); Lara St. John (violin); Ronn Yedidia (accordion); Mark Timmerman (bassoon, contrabassoon); Andy Doe (French horn); Paulette Ivory (upright bass); Jack Campbell (electric bass).
Audio Mixer: Pascal Shefteshy.
Recording information: Kaleidoscope Sound, Union City, NJ (01/18/2009-04/15/2009).
Photographer: Sharon Gunderson.
Arrangers: Matt Van Brink; Daniel Lapp.
When you're a classical violinist -- and popular -- there is always a lot of pressure to do some crossover and appeal to the pop market. Violin players deal with it in a variety of ways depending on their professional requirements, and/or temperaments: Vanessa-Mae has almost spent her whole career doing crossover, whereas Kyung-Wha Chung probably wouldn't have done it in exchange for lifetime supply of good violin bows. After resisting the crossover bug for some time, Lara St. John did an album for Sony in 2001 that matched beats and breaks to her playing of Bach; it was hip, and better, perhaps, than it should have been. But it still didn't enhance her reputation more than just her normal playing of Bach-as-he-is does. While Lara St. John is generally great in anything she tries, she's greatest doing the things she knows, and that she's known for, and that's generally straight-up classical lit, and this makes her something of a odd fit for anything considerable as crossover.
With Polkastra's Apolkalypse Now -- released on St. John's own Ancalagon label -- St. John has managed to find a way to answer the challenge and to wholly sidestep the issue at the same time. She appears as a member of a unique and edgy ensemble, Polkastra, which has devised a new and often hilarious spin on the age-old European dance form, the polka, which like the waltz, is a dance, a genre, and a tradition all its own. If you grew up in Cleveland you might recall a television show called Polka Varieties, where accordion-wearing guys in cheesy tuxes smiled broadly while a skinny, middle-aged maid played a standup cocktail drum set. Polkastra is like taking Polka Varieties, injecting it full of youthful adrenaline and rolling it in a barrel off the top of the Terminal Tower. The album is replete with Spike Jones-y sendups of traditional pieces such as Johann Strauss II's polka "Light as a Feather" and a tune similar to "Dark Eyes" (refashioned as "The Hora! The Hora!") and some conspicuously wrong instrument choices; sparkling vibes in the traditional piece "Sirba" and "Clarinet Polka" performed on the contrabassoon -- there is even a track featuring William Barton on the didgeridoo. Apolkalypse Now is faithful to the tradition of polka in that polka itself has always been a mish-mash of various things, a format that embraces eclecticism; Polkastra seizes on the eclecticism and turns it up to 11. As with all other Ancalagon products, the sound quality is terrific and the packaging is exceptionally nice; the disc itself is a rollicking, romping good time for anyone who appreciates a little humor in their musical diet. ~ Uncle Dave Lewis