A divina comedia ou ando meio desligado
The Best of Os Mutantes: Everything Is Possible!
By Michaelangelo Matos
Os Mutantes, along with Gilberto Gil, Gal Costa, Caetano Veloso, and Tom Ze, were part of the now legendary late-60s tropicalia movement, a conscious exercise in collective experimentation by musicians and artists from the Brazilian state of Bahia. Tropicalia's mission was to blend--south and north, highbrow and lowbrow, anything and everything. The musicians' appreciation for the kitschy Carmen Miranda (generally looked down upon in her native country for having sold out to Hollywood) was no less strong than their affection for the Afro-Brazilian rhythms they grew up with or for Bob Dylan and the Beatles, who were then shattering the idea that rock 'n' roll was just for kids.
Tropicalia was for the most part a sort of easy listening with fangs: mainstream bossa nova that incorporated flippant social commentary, the studio trickery of psychedelic rockers like Jimi Hendrix, and lush, weird arrangements inspired by Phil Spector and Brian Wilson. The music scandalized both the Brazilian pop establishment, which didn't take kindly to being mocked, and the right-wing military government, which rewarded Gil and Veloso's politically charged public stances first by imprisoning them and then by forcing them into exile.
Os Mutantes never underwent that kind of extreme scrutiny--which is somewhat surprising, because with the possible exception of the famously eccentric Ze they were the oddest bananas in the tropicalia bunch. Rather than subvert traditional Brazilian pop roles (like acoustic-guitar-wielding troubadours Veloso and Gil, chanteuse Costa, or classically trained composer Ze), they shunned them altogether. American-born singer and percussionist Rita Lee and brothers Sergio Dias Baptista (guitar) and Arnaldo Baptista (keyboards, bass) were more or less a garage band, Bahia's cheeky equivalent of the Count Five or the Seeds. Bolstered by arranger and producer Rogerio Duprat's ornate, kitchen-sink orchestrations, Os Mutantes' early music is marked by the frequent use of wiggy, so-dated-they're-futuristic effects rigged from scratch by the Baptistas' older brother Claudio (including one contraption, a vocal distorter, built from a rubber hose and a hot-chocolate can).
It's tempting to write off American record collectors' newfound passion for Os Mutantes to this country's longstanding love affair with kitsch. But though the band's cute goofiness is an integral part of the package, it's not the whole deal. Os Mutantes were good--and I don't mean that in some Serge Gainsbourgian so-bad-it's-good way. Their first three albums--Os mutantes (1968), Mutantes (1969), and A divina comedia ou ando meio desligado (1970), which loosely translates as "Divine Comedy, or I Walk Disconnected"--have all recently been issued for the first time in the U.S. by New York indie Omplatten, and last week David Byrne's Luaka Bop imprint--which has done its best to incite a Brazilian craze for ten years now--released Everything Is Possible!, a best-of comp that covers their first five years. (Lee left the group in 1972; the others continued for a few years before calling it quits.) Taken together, they convincingly argue for Os Mutantes as one of the best psychedelic rock bands of any era.
As was common in the first wave of U.S. and UK psych rock, these albums are all over the place stylistically--sometimes within a single song. A divina comedia's "Chao de estrelas" ("Starry Ground") opens as a drifter's lament, with melodramatic clarinet, Spanish guitar, and Arnaldo's overripe baritone; he hits the vibrato a little too hard and rolls the rs a little too far. Halfway through, it morphs into a jaunty Dixieland number overlaid with apparently random sounds like airplanes taking off, marching bands passing through, carnival noisemakers, cartoon gunfire. It's like hearing an early Tom Waits song shift into the Beatles' "Good Morning Good Morning." The same album's "Haleluia," in which the title is the song's only lyric, builds from a Sunday-mass chorale with organ to a tough groove reminiscent of (and as cleanly executed as) the Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want."
All of this was as often as not heavily sardonic: to paraphrase an early Funkadelic review, nearly everything they did seemed to be a parody of something. A divina comedia's "Meu refrigerador nao funciona" ("My Refrigerator Doesn't Work") has Lee wailing like a mock Janis Joplin over a ponderous, six-minute-long acid-blues groove; Os mutantes's electric-guitar-and-organ version of Veloso's "Baby," with Arnaldo's insinuating con-man vocals, underscores the lyric's duality--it's both a rip on a typical bossa nova love song and a sly embrace of capitalism American-style. On the band's later version of the same song, recorded in 1971 and included on Everything Is Possible!, Lee sings, crooning like Francoise Hardy over a plucked and strummed acoustic guitar. She addresses arch lines like "You must try the new ice cream flavor / Do me a favor / Look at me closer...Read what I wrote on my shirt / 'Baby, baby / I love you'" so straightforwardly that, if you hadn't heard the other version, you might never guess that it wasn't sincere. It's also so purely gorgeous you might not care.
You don't have to care to enjoy the rest of their music either, really. Just as you could enjoy Slanted and Enchanted without ever having heard the Fall, familiarity with the context of or the raw materials for Os Mutantes' work, though preferable, isn't a prerequisite. More than anything, what I hear, particularly on the first album, is the sound of three people having the time of their lives.
This is the eternal promise of garage rock--the ragged glory, as Neil Young put it--and Os Mutantes achieved it with amazing consistency. Even the most elaborate arrangements sound off-the-cuff. As with last year's Nuggets box set, the spirit's the thing, and said spirit is invariably uninhibited, at times nearly anarchic. (Check Os mutantes's wild take on Gil and Veloso's Afro-Brazilian dance cut "Bat Macumba" to hear what English freakbeat wanted but seldom managed to be.) From the chintzy organ to the rough guitar and loose-limbed percussion to the vocals--twisted by technology, tongue-in-cheek, or merely giddy to the point of giggles--these guys hot-wired everything they could get their hands on. And even when the tunes most explicitly conjure the work of other artists--quoting "Satisfaction" on Mutantes's "Magica," or blithely crossing "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "I Am the Walrus" on the debut's "Panis et circenses" ("Bread and Circus"), or recalling the soaring folk rock of the Mamas & the Papas or Jefferson Airplane with A divina comedia's "Desculpe, Babe" ("Excuse Me, Babe")--Os Mutantes manage to sound devastatingly original. They were, after all, mutants, not clones.
A note to consumers: While all three Omplatten reissues have great moments not collected on the Luaka Bop compilation--"Magica" and "Chao de estrelas" among them--Everything Is Possible! is where Os Mutantes' cockeyed philosophy comes to life most bracingly. The 14 selections show off the group's best moves, from the Zombies-esque marijuana ode "Ando meio desligado" to the sheer splendor of the 1971 "Baby" to the fuzz-tone samba rock of "A minha menina" ("My Girl"). It's the best album Luaka Bop has ever released, and bears comparison to psych touchstones like The Who Sell Out, Surrealistic Pillow, and Moby Grape.