It must be Brave Combo
They start arriving in stores in late October, those early Christmas presents better known as the fruitcake of the record industry--Christmas albums, that is, lumps of coal to be played as you and yours trim the tree and gulp down eggnog and wait for that cold front to drop the temperature down to a crisp 72. They come in all shapes and sizes--"star"-studded alterna-rocker collections, jingle-bell jazz discs, and middle-of-the-road favorites featuring Frank Sinatra, Luther Vandross, or John Tesh. This year, there's even something from a band called The Blue Hawaiians, which could best be described as "sleigh-rock," depending upon how charitable you feel at this time of year.

The one Christmas album we come back to each season (not counting the timeless A Charlie Brown Christmas, Vince Guaraldi's soundtrack to this or any other season) is Brave Combo's It's Christmas, Man!, which was originally released in Japan in 1991 on the P-Vine label and then in the States the following year on Rounder. A novelty that transcends the pejorative, it's a bona fide classic three years after its debut and worth coming back to because it's more a Brave Combo album than a Christmas album. Where the band members were once worried it would be dismissed by Westerners as a one-off gimmick, the album has actually sold in the tens of thousands with more copies moving each successive holiday season.

It's an ethnomusicologist's stocking stuffer on which "O, Christmas Tree" dances to a rollicking samba beat, "Feliz Navidad" is reborn as a cumbia, and the long-lost "Must Be Santa" delivers its present in a polka(-dot) package. If most Christmas albums are wrought with stuffy reverence or in-joke irrelevance (who needs the Dickies' "Fuck Christmas"), then Brave Combo treat the standards ("Frosty the Snowman," "Little Drummer Boy," "The Christmas Song") as though they were the stuff of tradition--folk music not bound to seasonal convention.

Brave Combo recreates the music using waltzes and cha-chas and rancheras, even straight-ahead jazz or the blues when performing "Frosty" and Charles Brown's "Please Come Home for Christmas" without a hint of irony. In the end--especially with the four originals, most notably Carl Finch's "It's Christmas" and the Bubba Hernandez-Jeff Barnes composition "Santa's Polka"--it's as worthy a Brave Combo album as Polkatharsis or Humansville. They even got a track on there for those who think Jesus was just a Jew--"Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah," done up as the traditional hora.

Finch promises the band will debut a handful of new songs at this year's holiday show, including "We Three Kings" as a cha-cha and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" as a tango.

These guys aren't America's best bar band; they're the best band in America that still performs in bars.

Brave Combo performs its traditional holiday concert December 23 at Club Dada.

--Robert Wilonsky