Just days before sending me a copy of the new Brave Combo album, Carl Finch was busy trying to make a CD that will listen seamlessly, without any pauses to between songs, so that I can get what he calls “the flow of the whole thing.” Extra efforts like this are at the core of what Finch is about: making sure people hear the music in the proper context and of the best quality. He cannot control the reception, but he can control the delivery. For thirty three years, Finch and the rest of Brave Combo have been injecting unapologetic polka into the mainstream. With the release of Sounds of the Hollow, Brave Combo is just going about another year’s business, further buttressing a legacy that was already secure.
Brave Combo’s resume sounds as impossible as it is impressive. They have twenty five studio releases, not including international projects. They have won two Grammys and been nominated for four others. They were David Byrne’s wedding band. They have been ripped off by Bob Dylan and made an album with Tiny Tim. They composed the theme to ESPN’s Bowling Night. In addition to Dylan and Byrne, they count Matt Groening, John Goodman, Bruce Willis, Drew Carey, NPR’s Terry Gross and, predictably, Weird Al Yankovic among their fans. They played at club show at CBGB’s the night before they played a ballroom dancing event at theLincolnCenter. They have marched in the Macy’s Day Parade and led cha-cha lines out of Club Dada and downElm Street. They are virtuosos of accordion, experts of woodwinds, punk-rocking, cha-cha-cha-ing, improvising madmen and women. There has never been and will never be a band like the Brave Combo.
Even with that level of absurd notoriety, ringleader Carl Finch is one of the most grounded performers you could ever meet. He is disarmingly friendly and signs his e-mails “Polkatively.” Finch is a man as amused by his band’s myriad achievements as I am. “Once I committed to brave combo, I realized I was giving up 90 percent of my hopes,” says Finch, who once had pretty standard plans of rock and roll stardom. It is a career lived apart from expectations and so it defied them, his or anyone else’s.
Brave Combo has been on a multi-decade mission to dispel every polka stereotype they can. In some ways, Finch has seen vast improvement, like the unpredictable rise of the accordion. “I’ve never seen it so popular,” Finch marvels. “[When Brave Combo began] the coolest music store would never admit to even having one under the counter.” But Brave Combo knows there is still much of that Lawrence Welk, gray-haired connotation to overcome. Moreover, much of what cannot be classified as pop is often relegated to cultural music, fit for anthropologists, but anathema to the rock crowd. Finch places much of the blame on advertising companies, “If they had their way,” he says, “polka would still be some geek in the corner getting food thrown at him.”
Brave Combo draws from a broad well of polka influence from around the country. Finch can tell you the difference between Kansas City Czech and Mexican polka and even more about Texas’ own history of the style. “The South Texas influence on Polka is gigantic,” Finch says, referring to European enclaves in places like Fredericksburg, Brenham and La Grange. “It’s like they got to Houstonand went a few feet.” Just as their musical forebears, Brave Combo has persistently defied convention, living their career in parallel with New Wave, Grunge, Alternative, the “The” bands and now Hipsters. Brave Combo recorded their first album the same year Pink Floyd recorded The Wall. It is a time-tested vantage few bands can boast.
Sounds of the Hollow is a showcase of Brave Combo’s humor, musical prowess, and range. Finch has an arresting voice, with a dramatic lilt likened to the clarinets that accompany him. Brave Combo is known for their precise and original musicianship, a regrettably rare commodity in the Myspace/Bandcamp age. They can speed up or put on the brakes with impressive ease. Listening to Sounds of the Hollow is like watching a juggler or a tightrope walker. There is no snobbery to their skill. It is simply artfulness, accessible to the connoisseur or the layman.
Finch’s accordion evokes more drama by itself than most modern lyricists. At times, Sounds of the Hollow, intentional or not, plays into the American romance of Europe, so that you find yourself sauntering bricked, European avenues, past shop-fronts of ages we simply cannot boast here in the States. True to their reputation, Brave Combo showcase a variety of musical styles and beats, hooting like a Mariachi band here and crooning over a sultry tango there. Then, there is the Auto-Tune moment, which I can only attribute to the band’s well-established good humor.
Most importantly, I find there is a beat to this polka that satisfies my one criterion of pop music allure. The addition of Ginny Mac, a Brave Combo fan since the age of fourteen, ups the Combo’s game. She shreds the accordion in a way that kicks objection in the teeth. The only way to avoid enjoying Sounds of the Hollow is to intellectually decide that you will not. Essentially, you have to be a close-minded twerp with no imagination.
The cynical part of me wonders if Brave Combo will end up likeDenton’s version of the Chieftans: highly respected and chronically taken for granted in spite of their relentless work ethic and talent. But I give listeners less credit than Finch does, who still delights in teaching audiences the difference between rumba and merengue, in bringing polka to the club level. “People truly should decide for themselves if they like it or not,” he says. “They shouldn’t have to be told. That’s the mantra of Brave Combo.”
Brave Combo will play a CD release party at Sons of Hermann Hall this Saturday.