Old habits are indeed hard to break, but Brave Combo--and, for that matter, fellow nominees CafŽ Noir--deserve a shot at something larger, an award that does not so narrowly pigeonhole what is so damned hard to pin down.

Only a few weeks ago, Brave Combo released an album that ranks among its finest: the Japanese-release-only Allumettes, recorded over a four-year period with former Washington Squares lead singer Lauren Agnelli. Though it skitters toward the familiar Latin-lounge sound of some of the Combo's earlier albums, it is a far darker, far more somber piece of work--one that concentrates more on the smoky torch songs than on the whacked-out new-wave-cha-cha-cha. Agnelli's vocals on the lush, frightening "Burn Slow" and the jazzbo oom-pah "J'ai Faim Toujours" (covered by Little Jack Melody on his 1994 World of Fireworks) are the desperate, sad yin to Brave Combo's giddy, frenetic yang. Yet Brave Combo never loses its sound to the music, always remaining identifiable even as it branches out into a thousand directions.

"Every time we do a record, it's, 'What do we do now?'" Combo founder Finch explains. "We always need something to give us a new angle. When you're in a band that throws in everything including the kitchen sink, that should give you plenty of freedom, but that's also a real problem. I don't like a directionless album. When you have the freedom to do whatever, that's frustrating. I like to have limits."

And yet it's the sound of what exists outside the boundaries that defines Brave Combo--a band that is preparing to release another all-polka album even as it attempts to release the record made with Tiny Tim over several years (featuring a martini-with-a-twist remake of "Stairway to Heaven"). So here's a hearty mazel tov for this year, and a cautionary word for next year: Brave Combo deserves this award, as always, but you'd have a hard time explaining why they aren't also the best band overall. Anywhere, anytime.

--R.W.

RAP/HIP-HOP
BassX

That Dallas--an enormous urban landscape, less dense perhaps than Los Angeles or New York City but every bit as barren and unfriendly at times--has not bred a proportionately larger rap/hip hop scene remains a demographic mystery. Sales of national rap acts are soaring, the Beastie Boys are on their way through here for the second time in less than a year, and De La Soul packed the Bomb Factory during their most recent visit, but the scene itself here is small, if not invisible. Some local rappers blame the media for inadequate coverage of the local scene; others suggest that only the coasts, West and East, are fertile grounds for rap and hip-hop.

The members of Mad Flava--winners last year, nominees most recently--vehemently criticized the local media (and this award) for not "being really true to what's going on" in the rap community. It remains underground, they insisted, only because it is so ignored.

But truth be told, the vast majority of rap music buyers are young teenagers, black and white, easily awed by the larger-than-life personas of Ice Cube or Snoop Doggy Dog, less impressed with those rappers who refuse to buy into the stereotype. The gun-totin', gangsta-pimpin', bitch-slappin' image those rappers portray is far more impressive to young ears and eyes than easy-going, funky-groovy acts like a Tribe Called Quest or the Digable Planets. Add to the equation the distance that separates Dallas from New York or L.A., and the atmosphere becomes ripe for the hostility born of futility.

Denton's BassX, on the other hand, is a homegrown talent that created its own niche here in Texas, existing on the farthest ends of the spectrum--as artists making music for the love of it, as performers unwilling to package their product inside the cardboard machismo of gangsta rap. The five-piece combo is fronted by rappers Kid Homeslice (real name Hal Hilliard) and Snicka G. (Gerald Young), with the fine grooves laid down by real musicians--namely Chill-EV (a.k.a., Vince Reynolds) on guitar, Bendonesia (Ben Bocardo) on bass, and Bobgoblin's Rob Avsharian on drums. All the players are jazz-trained, and their musicianship shines in an effortless way.

"We started as a group of people jamming, and the whole thing crossed to hip-hop," Reynolds says. "In a lot of ways we are an 'alternative band,' since we mostly play to college audiences. But definitely we wouldn't want to group ourselves with that Denton funk stigma. We're going in more of a jazz direction."

BassX defies pigeonholing by blending smooth Kenny Burrell-style guitar licks with slick bass chords and old-school funk rhythms upon which the two rappers rhyme, interplay, and collide. Quite often, the five Dentonites offer a slice of what groups like Us3 promised but never delivered--a merging of 'round midnight jazz with modern hip-hop sensibilities. Where Us3, the Blue Note band best known for its hit "Cantaloop," samples old jazz records and plays off the old music, BassX is all about live, breathing musicians who create the same powerful sound in front of you. They pride themselves in saying they are "a live hip-hop quintet."

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