“People Change” By Copper Box: Album Review
Posted: October 2, 2011 by polishmoon in Music - Album Reviews
This is a hard review to write, for several reasons. Copper Box is an Oshkosh, WI based band … a label that often denotes descriptors like “local-talent” or “home-grown” … and all accompanying visions of bad “Free Bird” or “Play That Funky Music” covers. They are also referred to as a “polka-rock” band quite often. Now, I grew up on the south side of Milwaukee … my grandfather played in a polka band … and I’m Polish – I know polkas. While Copper Box does play polkas, these are not my grandfathers polkas. Copper Box is an anomaly: they transcend the “local/polka” labels and are truly a professional-talent level quartet whose eclectic style is possibly the one thing keeping them from being huge. A bit about the band first.
When I try to describe the kind of music Copper Box plays to people, I usually end up unleashing a series of genres that leave people a bit confused. Sure, they know how to rock out a polka … but their repertoire includes healthy doses of zydeco, roots/americana and latin-fusion. When dabbling in so many styles, musically virtuosity is a must … and the four musicians have no trouble bringing an “A” game. Fronted by the husband and wife duo of Danny and Michelle Jerabek, “CBx” could practically hold a musical instrument clinic. Danny is so good on the button accordion, he’s practically a squeeze-box savant. Add to that skilled abilities on keyboards, cornet, sousaphone, clarinet, guitar and penny whistle (and more I’m sure), he’s practically a one man band. Vocally, he’s solid … and his inflections, yelps and banter remind me of New Orleans creole … Dr. John … hell, even Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show (early years) In live performances he’s a true showman, with enough manic energy to win over a crowd in no time … and enough dance moves to keep the ladies happy. Yep, I said it. I’ve seen CBx 5 times now … and every show some woman in the crowd loves his moves. Ladies like dancin’ afterall.
Michelle Jerabek brings an equal amount of talent, both vocally and instrumentally. Her voice has enough range to pull off a wide variety of styles, and just the right amount of grit to add energy when things get rockin’. Not to be outdone by Danny, she brings her own music store of instruments to the table. Highly skilled at tenor and baritone saxophones, she also plays guitar, flute, squeeze-box and fan favorite … washboard. Yep, washboard. Also an energetic performer, her all-in washboard style is to the male fans what Danny’s butt-shakin’ antics are to the ladies. At the last show I attended, some guy I didn’t know felt it important to tell me this: “I never thought I’d say this, but that is some pretty hot scratch-board thing playin.” There it is folks. Everything a great front-of-stage performer needs: talent, energy and sex-appeal. Copper Box has TWO such people up front.
Having grown up in a musical family, and having been in several bands myself, I know how important (and woefully underappreciated) a quality rhythm section is. The only word that comes to mind when I think of the CBx back-stage boys is this: savage.
Bassist Kevin Junemann is so good, you rarely realize it … until you start paying close attention. His lines, which in lesser hands could easily become repetitive, travel and roll and walk the frets in inventive – and oft melody driving – ways. That’s what I like most about his playing … he’s not flashy, but his efforts stick in the back of your head. Don’t believe me? Go try to play “Irish Washerwoman” on a bass guitar. Kevin can.
At home-plate sits Jason Van Ryzin, a man who understands what drumming/percussion is truly about. It’s about back-bone and texture. I was a drummer for eleven years and – although I never came close to Van Ryzin’s skill level – I know how hard it is to be inventive, yet tasteful. He obviously gets it … his transitions and fills adapt to each distinct style of music seamlessly … never losing sight of the meter … and peeking through just enough to add a flash of style. Should you hear a Copper Box album – or see them live – pay close attention to his cymbal work. Bad drummers use cymbals as exclamation marks … alone. Van Ryzin takes a Stewart Copeland approach … weaving them into the overall tapestry.
All in all, I can’t say it enough – this band is ROCK solid … and an absolute joy to see live. The music industry has taken some notice as well, as they have received several Wisconsin Area Music Industry awards and nominations (People’s Choice, Americana Artist of the Year, Specialty Instrumentalist of the Year (Danny Jerabek)). There you have it – the band. On to the review.
“People Change” is the sixth Copper Box album overall, released earlier this year. For the purpose of a review, I really have to break it into three parts: traditional, covers, and original songs. The sole traditional song of “Some People” is “Irish Washerwoman,” a hearty old stomp that the band handles easily, but sparks it up with some hootin’ and hollarin.’ A great version, this … plus you get the added bonus of hearing Junemann play it via a bass break-down.
Cover-songs – and doing them well – is truly an art form … retaining the original personality, yet adding your own spin. Copper Box has, to this point, done some great covers (Born On The Bayou, Squeeze-Box, Peter Gunn) and one near-legendary cover (Comfortably Numb … seriously). Of the four covers on this album, three are big winners. Los Lobos’ “Corrido #1″ is an homage with harmonizing Jerabek vocals that Cesar Rosas should be proud of. The Record/Sanders classic “Soulful Strut” gets a great treatment here, with a strong vocal performance from Michelle … it’s a sweet slice of early-70′s AM soul sound … with accordion. It works. A wicked-hot take on Sonny Landreth’s ”The Flame Will Never Die” is bursting with energy … and comes damn close to capturing the vibe of a live show. It should be a live staple – ’nuff said. The only cover that … hmmm … I don’t want to say it doesn’t work … hmmm. The King/Stewart classic “Tennessee Waltz” is played well … and sung well … it just doesn’t seem to fit. Stylistically, I feel it clashes with the personality of the band … it has a restrained feel that almost swims against the tide. I feel bad not loving it … because it is a quality take … but the nature of the song leaves little room for added life.
As far as original tunes go, “Some People” continues to show growth and improvement in the band’s own creations. The album opens with a trio of originals that demonstrate the genre hopping ability Copper Box has … and how well it works. “Some People Change” is a latin-tinged stomp with an intriguing Tom Waits bit of sinister in it. “Racing” is a song from early in the band’s catalog that gets an update … a melancholy number with a breezy chorus straight from the sunny 1970s. Next up is “Adios Baby,” another latin-flavored song (claves people, claves) with a darker flavor. In fact, these three songs rank among my favorites from the band-due to the tone. With so much fun and energy inherent in zydeco and polka, it’s nice to see the band explore moodier, soulful and downright groove-laden sounds. The album closer - “Won’t You Love Me Like That” – is also an interesting song … slipping in and out of styles … with Danny singing some parts, Michelle singing others. It’s got soul … it’s got a sweet groove (I’m using ‘groove’ too much, but that’s the best word for something with so much … groove) … it’s a nice way to wrap the album up.
As far as original polkas go, Danny Jerabek has unleashed a winner with “Johnsonville Firemen’s Two Step.” It’s a fun shuffle that Wisconsin Polka phenom Mike Schneider would be proud of. Mike knows polkas. Actually, I wonder if Danny and Mike know each other. I hope so. I see kindred spirits there.
A long-winded review, I know … but this band is special … and worth talking about. Yes, they play polkas. Yes they are from Oshoksh, WI. You know what? That makes me proud (as a native Wisconsinite) as they are also very, very good. “Some People” is their best release to date … I’m excited to see where the band goes from here.
Pros: The best album so far from a band brimming with talent … and unique flavor.
Cons: If you are a staunch anti-polka/zydeco/roots music person, you won’t like it … and I am sad for you.
Rating: OOOO (“Excellent” – 4 Moons out of 5) A high-quailty album from start to finish.
If you haven’t seen Copper Box live … and they are in your area – go see them. Their live show is outstanding. You will like polkas by the time you leave …
… and here’s a good example of the vibe and their musicianship … and a bit of “Comfortably Numb.” (I told you, I wasn’t lying) You will like polkas by the time you leave.