A certain motif suggests itself in the catalog of Brave Combo, beginning with their 1979 debut Polkasonic and amplified in the later albums Polka Party, Polkatharsis, Polkas for a Gloomy World and last year’s Polkasonic, which won a Grammy Award.
But there’s more to the band than beer barrels and happy wanderers, especially on its new album, The Process (March 21).
"We’re reverting to our roots but still incorporating elements of the ethnic stuff," founder and bandleader Carl Finch said. "The bottom line is that we want to try to get more airplay without compromising too much of what we really are."
On The Process, the band added a heavy dose of straight American pop to the international flavor its fans have come to expect.
Years before record stores devoted a far-off corner of the shop to something called world music, these musicians were drawing from traditions German, Mexican, even Middle Eastern that hadn’t exactly electrified the club circuit in their hometown of Denton, Texas.
None of this mattered much to Finch at the time. With Brave Combo, he was like a kid with a science kit, free to mix musical chemicals until something exploded.
But now, with world music an often viable marketing category, he finds his work more rewarding and the challenges greater.
"World music has made us feel like we have a greater responsibility to play the music well," he said. "There was a time when, if we were playing salsa, we accepted a little more of a slam-bang, rock 'n' roll approach. As more people became more familiar with it, we wanted to play it better, with more of the essence of what the pure salsa groove really is. It made us do our homework."
On the other hand, Finch said, it’s easier than ever to find work, thanks to audiences’ greater acceptance of foreign traditions. "Frankly, it’s a much easier sell now. If we play a cha-cha, or a meringue, or a polka, audiences are curious, if not already pretty familiar with the styles. It was definitely not like that in the past."
This move toward white-bread pop also reflects a growing reluctance on Finch’s part to draw from styles that have become more familiar to listeners.
"We’re pulling back a little from the Latin thing, mainly because it’s so cool and so happening, and the public has become so sophisticated, that maybe we don’t have as much to contribute from an educational point of view," Finch said. This doesn’t stop the band from dropping a sizzling Spanish-language chorus into the middle of "My Tears Are Nothing" (RealAudio excerpt).
But the dominant style on The Process is the decidedly unworldly sound of pop. From the bubbly organ and midtempo surf drumming of "Human" (RealAudio excerpt) to the ear-candy harmonies of "For Me" (RealAudio excerpt), much of the album could have been taken from a time capsule buried in suburbia in the late '60s, when Finch’s three favorite pop acts the Music Machine, Love, and Manfred Mann Chapter Three populated radio playlists.
"But the polka thing still hasn’t been used up and watered down," Finch said. "It’s not too hip yet, so it’s still wide open for us."
Finch also has a personal mission he’d like to accomplish through his polka fixation. "I’m a vegetarian, and one of my goals is to take some of the emphasis in the polka thing away from the meat and the beer, and to focus more on the music. It’s a pretty big challenge, but I would love it if there were none of those stereotypical attachments that most people think about when they hear a polka. God, I would love that. It would be just perfect."