2009 / Music

Review: Os Mutantes’ Return Offers Tropicalia Flashback

Brazilian Psychedelic-Rock Group Releases First New Disc Since 1970s

Cultivating a spirit of strangeness has been a fundamental character of seminal Brazilian psychedelic-rock rock group Os Mutantes ever since the band first broadcast their wildly eclectic, seductive music on a local TV show in 1966.

Photo: ANTI-

Photo: ANTI-

In the Northern Hemisphere, the pioneering group was largely invisible in its musical lifetime. In South America, they were likely a cause for concern. Whether it was shocking sheltered Brazilian audiences with Portuguese-sung songs that drew heavily from British and American influences, or allowing their onstage garb to evolve from Anglophile hippie chic into costumed weirdness, or pushing their tunes in increasingly avant-garde directions, the band members have always viewed the art of music-making as performance art as much as an instrumental one. Every concert and album was an opportunity for a little provocation, a little spectacle.

Perhaps then it shouldn’t have come as such as surprise that Os Mutantes would unexpectedly resurface in 2006 after almost 30 years of hibernation. The group — led by only one of its founding members — has busied itself on the underground-rock tour circuit as it attempted to satiate hipster audiences nourished on their rediscovered discography and hungry to glimpse what they missed the first time around. In hopes of enhancing the Mutantes’ legend further, the reconstituted band has now released the first studio album in 35 years, “Haih Or Amortecedor.” Strange is still a very fitting descriptor and meant in the best sense of the word.

Calling this group a reunion isn’t completely genuine. The band’s creative nexus has always been its founding trio of brothers Arnaldo Baptista and Sergio Dias Baptista and lead singer Rita Lee Jones. This new incarnation of the band, centered on bassist Sergio Dias Baptista, is rather a continuation of the iconoclastic approach the original group developed on their early albums.

Those records would prove to be more than fleeting art projects. The band became one of the leaders of the Tropicalia movement, a musical and artistic movement that briefly flowered in Brazil in the late ’60s. The clique of like-minded performers, spearheaded by visionaries Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, fused traditional Brazilian musical genres like bossa nova and samba with American and British rock and folk influences. The hybridized sound fastened Western pop structures, psychedelic-rock effects and freak-out, avant-garde instrumentation with Latin, African and Caribbean rhythms. The movement was eventually squashed by Brazil’s ruling military dictatorship and the ongoing political turmoil. Os Mutantes continued on until Arnaldo Baptista and Jones both left in the mid-’70s and the group’s sound morphed into something more closely resembling progressive rock. They folded in 1978.

In the years since Os Mutantes’ demise, the group’s first few albums — fusing Dada with wah-wah — have proven influential to more curious musical minds. American performers David Byrne, Devendra Banhart, Kurt Cobain and most famously, Beck, championed the band and its contemporaries. Listeners to the ’90s alternative nation could hear clear references to Os Mutantes in those artists’ chart-topping albums, discs which sold many times more than all the Brazilian band’s records combined. In recent years, interest in the Os Mutantes has seeped into the indie-rock blogosphere, where the group enjoys a cult status.

And yet, it was still a bit of a surprise when Pitchfork.com took a page from the Coachella Festival’s playbook and lured the former members of Os Mutantes to reunite for its Pitchfork Music Festival in 2006. The reunion, which temporarily included both Baptista brothers, was brief and intensified curiosity in the band’s sonic achievements. After guitarist Arnaldo Baptistas opted to return to his solo career, his brother decided to keep going and recruited six other musicians to help him carry the torch.

“Haih Or Amortecedor” is a excellent attempt to give Os Mutantes a new lease on life. Although the album is in part a flashback to the old band’s penchant for experimentation on perfect pop fare, there are no cosmic gobbelty-gook or cheap psychedelic clichés this time. Baptista, who occasionally partnered on the record with fellow Tropicalia mainstays Tom Ze and Jorge Ben, to keep the band focused on tight, bright song arrangements, tipping closer in the direction of normalcy than anything since the band’s initial efforts.

Listeners couldn’t help but be impressed when they hear the likeable choral vocal harmonies above the lysergic-ally quavering guitar-bass melody on “Neurociência Do Amor.” Or the easy blending of divergent sounds and styles on “Querida Querida,” which features computerized horn sections interjections, then strings and then a rough-hewn guitar solo. The Mutantes are obviously trying to win converts with this material, but cheekily subverting their task with pastiche musical asides and general silliness. Broadcast programmers won’t like that although their musichead fans will dig it.

The ensembles’ strengths are most effective when a sense of purposefulness takes root. “O Careca” is a joyous slice of jam-band funkiness. The opening flute solo suggest both Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks” as well as ’60s jazz, but any sense of dated corniness disappear once the Caribbean conga rhythms first bump against a Hammond organ hissing and the Herbie Hancock electric piano. In contrast to the instrumental prowess on display on “O Careca,” “Teclar” is a story song that harkens back to the Byrds and yet, while its musical touchstones seem nostalgic also sounds remarkably contemporary.

The most serious of the album’s tracks is “Baghdad Blues,” which takes the anti-authoritarian political subtext apparent in many of the songs out in the open. (The record opens with a song built around a clip of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin speaking and closes with a mashup of Russian patriotic song and “The Star Spangled Banner.”) On “Baghdad Blues,” the group slithers toys with Middle Eastern musical phrases while slowly turning the midtempo number into a show stopper. The piano licks recall ’90s funk-metal band Faith No More at its most artsy while more flute lines dart about like fireflies and horns disparately crow and moan low.

On a lighter note, the Mutantes’ anarchic approach can be fun, too. Their irreverence and odd pairings often pay off to brilliant effect. The nightmarish “Gapala Krishna Om” is based off a normally joyous Hare Krishna chant muted by guttural keyboard oscillating and a spider web-like guitar refrain. Likewise, “Samba Do Fidel” is an over-the-top rendering of Cuban son. Performed with straight-faced sincerity, the musicians’ mirth is only glimpsed in the mesh of cartoonish voices parodying popular stereotypes. The piano phrases are exquisitely authentic, but a scalding, Santana-ish guitar solo is a reminder that the Mutantes’ still prefer hybridization over purity.

That emphasis on incorporating genres and sounds was a key tenet of the band’s prior records and the Tropicalia movement and an aspect that likely helped Os Mutantes’ music endure and connect with subsequent generations in Brazil as well as the United States and the United Kingdom. That Baptista and his new acolytes wouldn’t pretend to be a relic or surrender to accommodating points of view on “Haih Or Amortecedor” is a tribute to the best kind of artistic stubbornness. And on this album, it pays off.

The Mutantes’ splicing of different styles together might no longer be the strange anomaly that it was in the ’60s and ’70s, but remains the new group’s source of strength. With the passage of time and in an odd reversal, the Mutantes’ approach is no longer strange and yet their new success is.

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2009 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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