Friday, August 30, 2013

Remove Yourself From Fashion

Original Facebook post here.
Today's formative-album replay: Brave Combo, A Night on Earth. For a series of summers home in Arizona from college in L.A., I wrote music preview features for the Arizona Republic, choosing my subjects by browsing through the New Times' calendar of upcoming shows. I'm not sure if I'd read good things, or really anything, about the Denton, Tex. polka band Brave Combo, before pitching a feature on them, but I became a fan based on their album Polkatharsis, which I got from Rounder in advance of their show at Phoenix's Mason Jar, and based on my lively phone interview with their iconoclastic frontman, Carl Finch (in which I learned, among other things, that he'd written a college thesis or dissertation on Muzak).

It was the year after Paul Simon's Graceland had made so-called "world music" mainstream, and I initially saw Brave Combo's audacious eclecticism--in addition to polkas, they tackled related forms like nortenas as well as sounds from farther afield, like cumbias and zydeco and African pop--in comparison and contrast to the musical tourism of the likes of Simon and David Byrne. But one obvious difference with BC was its aggressive, almost punk-rock squareness, its fervent embrace of major-key oompah and minor-key bathos, which was so intense and po-faced that it made some very unhip sounds somehow hip, or at least undeniably hip-shaking. This wasn't music borne of pop songwriters' mid-career-crisis quest for some exotic flavors to add to their own work; this was a bracing re-strange-ing of the familiar. It sounded to me like my own Midwestern parents' roots music rendered with a kind of devotional irreverence, without blandishment or politesse--with something like the dance-party spirit that undoubtedly gave birth to and sustained these forms in the old country as well as the new. (As it turns out, my parents mostly liked what they heard, too--my mom and I danced to one of their songs at my first wedding.)

I had the great pleasure of seeing BC play, not only at The Mason Jar but also later in L.A. at Al's Bar and at LunaPark (the latter with their most famous fan, Matt Groening, present on the dance floor), and, as with most bands with dance-party roots, live is where they seemed to thrive. But they've made a number of keeper records, too, and this is my favorite by far, with its heavy Latin vibe, sparkling arrangements, and--crucially for music that is often fast and dense--a sense of space and proportion, of dynamic range. What's more, the original tunes here are particularly strong complements to the finely curated covers: not just Finch's wistful, ambling title tune and words-to-live-by polka "Do Something Different" but a string of utterly infectious salsa-rock ditties by bassist/vocalist Bubba Hernandez, all of them odes to the ladies ("Don't Ever Dance With Maria," "Laura," "Dulcecita," "Linda Guerita"). I'm not so sure we needed Bubba's pseudo-suave cover of "Hey There," and Finch's self-consciously thoughtful "What Is This Darkness" isn't his highest point as a writer. But by and large this is the Brave Combo collection that comes closest to the happy two-step anarchy of their live shows.

Jack Lechner I'm nuts about Brave Combo. They haven't come to NYC in years -- do you know if they're still together?
Brave Combo Jack, please sign up for Brave Combo's email list so that you don't miss the next NYC show. We were there a couple of times last winter including Joe's Pub and a free show in Lincoln Square. Nothing in the NE on the books at the moment, but that can change at a drop of a hat!
Jack Lechner With pleasure! Thanks, Brave Combo!

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