Brave Combo,
(Cleveland International, 1999)

With Polkasonic, Brave Combo returns to its roots -- or some of them, anyway! Brave Combo, for anyone unfamiliar with their particular style of genre-bending, is almost the definition of musical eclecticism. They are skilled in a vast number of musical styles, and often play songs in styles for which they were not intended, but which sound just right when they do -- the "Purple Haze" polka on this album springs to mind. (Yes, that's Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze.")

I'm more a Brave Combo fan than a polka fan, personally; their Christmas album, It's Christmas, Man, is one of our family's most-played. I grew up in the northern Midwest, though, and polka was one of the background musics of my childhood. Polkasonic brought back fond memories of state fairs, street fairs, huge weddings and other multi-generational dances. I'm far from a polka expert, though, and Polkasonic has interested me in exploring polka music further.

Brave Combo plays an assortment of different styles of polka here, and do them all very well indeed. It's a high-energy style, mostly cheerful and bouncy even when the lyrics are doleful. One of the best contrasts on this album is the juxtaposition between the cheery sounds and sad lyrics of "Why, Oh Why," followed by the minor-key, slightly mournful sounds and upbeat lyrics of "Polka Dancer." These two are followed by "Only For Love," a beautiful instrumental waltz that come the closest of any of the songs to the oom-pah sounds many people associate with polka, although here they are subtle.

"Down At the Friendly Tavern," "Apples, Peaches, Pumpkin Pie" and "Glamorous Gal" are all very much straight polkas, though each has bits of rock styling that are a fun and interesting counterbalance. "Skytrain" has odd, angst-filled lyrics and sounds less like a polka musically than any other track, while keeping the polka rhythms. "Crumbling Heart," like "Polka Dancer," shows its Eastern European roots in its lively minor sounds. "Conchita, The Waitress" is an example of Tejano polka -- a melding of Latin and polka styles.

I hadn't heard "Red Wing" for many years; it's a sentimental ballad about a doomed romance between an Indian maiden and her love, here without the lyrics but with a polka beat. I also enjoyed the polka version of "Down in the Valley!" And "Purple Haze" is a tour de force, and excellent example of the odd but effective musical juxtapositions for which I love Brave Combo.

The liner notes are minimal; one page, unfolded, with Carl Finch's interesting brief essay on polka as a musical form. (Finch is the founder of Brave Combo.) His enthusiasm is infectious! The album itself looks more like a rock album than anything else; this was a conscious decision, made to broaden their base of listeners. I hope it works, and doesn't put off rock types with the word "Polka," and polka fans with the rock 'n' roll appearance.

Polkasonic is a lot of fun -- and, by the way, one of the best albums ever to exercise to! Its high energy is contagious, and it's an excellent introduction to the bouncy world of polka.

review by
Amanda Fisher

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