Return to roots
Polkas for a Gloomy World
Brave Combo
Rounder Records

Brave Combo has, for more than 16 years, been caught in an odd spot ("The Mystery Spot," perhaps, as sax-etc. player Jeffrey Barnes might call it). When Carl Finch's band emerged from Denton as straight-faced polka practitioners--doing for the much-maligned genre what the Ramones did for punk, as David Fricke wrote in Rolling Stone 14 long years ago--they billed themselves as the "nuclear polka" band. Then, for the next decade, Brave Combo set out to distance themselves from their self-proclaimed label--wanting to be known as a world-beat band, recording with Japanese ondo musicians, releasing an all-Latin album, cutting a moody lounge disc with Lauren Agnelli and another faux-jazz album with Tiny Tim. But no matter how diverse their sounds or styles, the nuclear polka thing hung over Brave Combo like a giant mushroom cloud.

So now, eight years after the "epic" Polkatharsis, the band returns to its roots with Polka for a Gloomy World and embraces the music once again--meaning it's more of the same ol' same ol', where nothing's really similar. But Gloomy World takes Polkatharsis to a further-out place: where its predecessor played like a revisionist's history of polka, its inspiration taken from the likes of Myron Floren and Larry Chesky, Gloomy World is more driven and rhythmic, more pop, more wild--a true modernist's take on polka in all its incarnations, accessible even for those who still think it is one big joke.

That's why the conjunto "Buscando Tu Corazon" is sung in English by Finch; that's why "Flying Saucer" is more pop than polka; that's why "Mystery Spot Polka," sung by Jeff Barnes, sounds like Tom Waits-gone-New Wave; that's why the band imitates the brooding Soviet Army Chorus on the Russian standard "Katiusha." And that's why it all makes sense. It's still novel even after all these years, but never novelty--more like ethnic music the way funk is ethnic music, the beat more evident than before and the influences more obvious, always smiling even when sad.

From Russian to Mexican and Polish to pop, Brave Combo has at heart always been a rock and roll band that embraces the traditional sounds of Texas--the border norteo and cumbia, the Czech and German polka--and their mission to legitimize the music to the nonbeliever remains the same. That's why Brave Combo still kills them, years after original (and long-gone) bassist Lyle Atkinson told Musician in 1982 that playing polka "could get old pretty fast." But not when polka is still a relatively untouched gold mine--not when there are Eddie Blazonczyk and Lefty Lopez songs to record--and not when there are still converts to be made.

--Robert Wilonsky