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World Psychedelic Classics 1: Brazil: The Best of Os Mutantes: Everything Is Possible!

Os Mutantes

Luaka Bop/Warner Bros.

In the past year, Tropicalia, the pop-art Brazilian musical explosion of the late ’60s, has featured prominently on the music-geek radar. Whether it’s been Times Arts section’s articles of music archaeology uncovering the odd Tom Ze, or Beck’s shameless Tropicalia ode on Mutations, or Fugazi and its road crew’s enthusiastic tape-swapping and name-dropping, the D.C. hipster knows by now that Brazil circa 1968 was happening—or, rather, is happening again. For critics, Tropicalia’s rediscovery should re-orient the way rock music “evolution” is understood. The movement’s sophisticated and often funny critique attests that the most developed counterculture loci were not on the U.S. coasts or in London; rock’s historical nodes have to be expanded beyond Memphis, New York, and Liverpool to include not just Ann Arbor but Rio.

A brief experimental pop movement arising in 1967, Tropicalia appreciated and reworked U.S. cultural imperialism, and assaulted the ramparts of a fascist society and strong-armed Brazilian government that hit it back. It plays right to critics’ desire for a creative movement to address politicized society, but it remains to this day utterly, naturally listenable. (Comparatively, American icons of the ’60s—the Velvet Underground, for example—are worn out from their exposure on FM radio, VH-1, jean-jacket patches, and their retrospective canonization by the music mags.) Tropicalia reassures those romantics who are in love with the idea of the power of a pop-art revolt: They can say, yes, the explosive ’60s, psych-samba, Black Power, and Parisian student strikes—yes, these things did actually occur. Everything was possible, almost anywhere.

Os Mutantes, Tropicalia’s flagship rock ‘n’ roll trio, were wackier, Latin-flavored Beatles with a heightened sense of the political and regional dimensions of their art. Singing usually in Portuguese, but sometimes in French, English, or Spanish for effect, they toyed with pop icons from the very beginning, wrapping themselves in parody and psychedelic fuzz. They are forever linked with Tropicalistas Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil (songwriters controversial enough to be arrested and exiled, now crown princes of modern Brazilian modern music), with whom they often performed and collaborated in the early days. In the world of undiscovered nuggets, they are perhaps the greatest gem of the recent past to be tripped over and reappreciated this year.

The Mutantes met at a battle of high school bands in Sao Paulo in 1964, initially comprising 16-year-olds Rita Lee (vocals and effects) and Arnaldo Baptista (keyboard, bass), and his younger brother Sergio (guitar and bass). By October 1966, the fab trio was appearing on Brazilian TV. However, the trio made its first big splash at the TV Records Second Festival of Brazilian Popular Music, a songwriting contest of sorts, along with Gil and Veloso. The leftist, folky crowd booed and jeered the too-modern group, seeing them as “alien” and as sellouts to imperialism; it was Brazil’s version of Dylan plugging in at Newport.

The band recorded its self-titled debut in 1968. Sonically, it falls somewhere between The Piper at the Gates of Dawn and Revolver, more garagey and less orchestrated than Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, to which it is sometimes compared. It is resplendent; even if you never penetrate its Portuguese, the record plays like an essential album of the late ’60s—Os Mutantes is colored in vivid, warm, psychedelic tones by sound collages of Strauss’ “Blue Danube,” and strange effects often created electronically by Arnaldo Baptista and “fourth Mutante” (and third brother) Claudio Cesar Baptista.

The early records are legendary for their studio artistry. Up to that point, no one else had ever used a spray can of insect repellent as the basis for rhythm track. Rogerio Duprat, an avant-garde Cagist maestro and clearly the group’s George Martin character, also made his presence felt. A few of these magical songs were penned by Veloso and Gil; five were written by the band. One Velosa-Gil tune, the opener, “Panis et Circencis” (“Bread and Circuses”), which pops up 10th on Everything, is at once a psychedelic statement and a warning against stagnation and complicity. It swells with meaningful experimental touches: the jingle from a TV news program, the murmuring of fellow Tropicalistas, the rattle of knives and forks at a busy dinner table. (Also on that album, Os Mutantes includes “Trem Fantasma,” a wonder of a Gil/Veloso song that takes a trip to “the carnival ghost train,” to see “a giant mountain of green war generals.” Unfortunately, it’s not included on Everything.) On Gil and Veloso’s “Bat Macumba,” Afro-Brazilian percussion (Gil’s influence) competes with Sergio Baptista’s sick, warbling guitar, suggesting the activity of a mysterious bat-worshipping religious cult from the Brazilian interior. It’s also a layered reference to the Batman show and theme, reshaping the U.S. cultural influence in the funniest way.

Rather than mount a traditional tour, the band followed up the LP with arty happenings at the Casa Grande Theater in Rio, accompanied by surreal monsters and actors, and supported by other Tropicalia musicians. Next, the band anachronistically put its hip “Don Quixote” chewing gum and singing on TV in a mini-operetta that opens their second album, Mutantes. The Everything compilation prefers to feature the cleverly orchestrated “Fugo No. 11” with its cascading, wildly extended drum fills, and the deep, murky “Dia 36.”

By 1970, Os Mutantes had made its third platter, the darker A Divinia Comedia ou Ando Meio Desligado (“The Divine Comedy, or I’ve Been a Bit Off”). The disc captures the band’s schizophrenia in fun, groovy diamonds faceted with deconstructionist critiques. “Meu Refrigerador No Funciona” (“My Fridge Doesn’t Work”) is an extended comic interlude involving a satiric stab at the Janis Joplin blues-rock stylings popular at the time. “Ave Lucifer,” deliciously evil and nearly medieval, places its strings against odd percussive effects and Lee’s mesmerizing voice. Just as this record was making its mark, the government began a legislative crackdown on artists and intellectuals, and a moralist backlash against the movement hit. Tropicalia collapsed; Gil and Veloso, following their arrest, jetted to London, where Veloso would make his second eponymous album (this time in English), and the rest of Mutantes remained in Brazil, amid the shards of their movement.

Their fourth album, Jardim Eletrico (1971), extended the psychedelic concept of Divinia, featuring more writing by the band, funky nods, proto-prog-rock, and McCartneyish white soul; it ends with another gorgeous version of Veloso’s legendary “Baby” that is so easy on the ears that it’s been understood as a dig at the Brazilian rhythmic commercialism that the Mutantes disdained. Actually, the song is recorded far too straight to be anything other than a possible single aimed for the international market; in this version, Lee sings bossa nova-style, much in the way chanteuse Gal Costa did on her debut. It shows that the group could have easily morphed into a hit-making machine if it had so desired. The actual parody on the compilation is “Cantor De Mambo” from the band’s fifth album, which, mocking Santana sonically with typical Latin rhythms, derides the mambo singer (Sergio Mendes), a sellout who’s tooling around Hollywood in a Cadillac.

To its detriment, the band went prog in the early ’70s—as in Emerson, Lake and Palmer prog. Lee, making slow progress with her Moog, found herself left out and departed to make chameleonic solo records, the first being Hoje eo Primeiro Dia do Resto da Sua Vida (“Today Is the First Day of the Rest of Your Life,” 1972), with the Mutantes backing her. By the ’80s, she had become a Brazil radio staple, “a Brazilian rock ‘n’ roll mother,” according to one critic. The group continued under Sergio Baptista’s lead as a multi-instrumental dinosaur, making the Pink Floyd/Yes style O A e o Z (“The A and the Z”) and more before officially disbanding in 1978. Sergio Baptista moved to London to ply his guitar in the jazz scene. Arnaldo Baptista lost his sanity for a time, regaining it enough to make the odd sentimental album Loki? and some paintings, one of which has reportedly come into the hands of a member of Fugazi, a true convert to Mutantism.

Everything Is Possible!, the introduction to Mutantes that David Byrne and Luaka Bop have compiled, shows how deserving the Mutantes were of the accolades they received. Their first four albums (available on Brooklyn indie Omplatten or as Phillips import reissues through the Web site dustygroove.com) are also well worth spinning until you’re dizzy. Selecting 14 songs that accurately represent such a multifaceted, subtly brilliant band’s career could never yield perfect results. These compilation tracks don’t have anything obvious in common, yet in the end, Everything is an album of gems that succeeds in producing the desired jaw-dropping wonderment. If these are the kind of riches that millennial musical excavation bring, then let’s get out the shovels. CP