David Fricke – “Os Mutantes: Mutant Soul” (1999)

August 6, 2009 at 4:37 pm (David Fricke, Music, Reviews & Articles)

This article on Os Mutantes’ first 3 albums comes from issue #815 of Rolling Stone (June 24, 1999)… 

 

Thirty years on, the rest of the world is ready for Brazil’s bizarre, brilliant Os Mutantes. 

All pyschedelia, like politics, is local: the blotter-acid-at-teatime whimsy of the Beatles and Small Faces in Britain; the painted-desert mysticism of the 13th Floor Elevators in Texas. The exotic, super-charged dada of Os Mutantes was so specific to Tropicália – the late-1960s revolt in Brazilian art and music that also produced the singer-songwriters Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil and Tom Zé – that the band has been virtually unknown above the equator for three decades.

Singing almost exclusively in Portuguese, covering songs by Veloso and Gil as well as writing their own piquant originals, Os Mutantes (the Mutants) drew equally and recklessly from Western trends and Brazilian tradition, creating sexy, action-painting pop that still defies categories. That has much to do with why vocalist Rita Lee, bassist and keyboard player Arnaldo Baptista and his younger brother, guitarist Sérgio, are now the hottest thing in pop archaeology, the toast of a generation desperate for novelty and fried by irony. Os Mutantes (1968), Mutantes (’69) and A Divina Comédia (’70) – the trio’s first three albums, finally available in the U.S. together with a superb best-of set compiled by David Byrne – are flush with guileless eccentricity.

“A Minha Menina” (“My Girl”), on Os Mutantes, is a sweet old-school samba roughed up with a rewrite of the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” riff. In A Divina Comédia’s “Desculpe, Babe” (“Excuse Me, Baby”), Arnaldo’s curt farewell to a lover is enriched with warm, Byrdsy guitar, a bossa nova stroll and Lee’s wounded-Nico harmonizing. Os Mutantes’ ritualistic chant “Bat Macumba” has the kick and cheese of a Shindig-style TV theme – plus a rickety tremolo effect on Sérgio’s fuzz guitar that sounds like a chorus of locusts.

But this was also music made in defiance of a defensive, vindictive political and cultural establishment that plunged Brazil into an era of military dictatorship and ultimately crushed Tropicália. Os Mutantes’ passage from radiant naiveté to introspective retreat can be heard in these early albums. “Panis et Circesis” (“Bread and Circus”), on Os Mutantes, suggests what Pink Floyd might have sounded like if Syd Barrett’s brain had been baked by the sun and string bikinis at Copacabana. The group’s biggest hit, “Ando Meio Desligado” (“I Walk Disconnected”), on A Divina Comédia, is comparatively stark in its sensuality, a sultry hymn to weed that sounds like Astrud Gilberto fronting the Zombies.

Os Mutantes came to a grim prog-rock end in 1978. Belatedly canonized, they are now perfect end-of-the-century rock stars, icons of sunny, lunatic ambition in sour, unsettled times. Their trip is not over; here’s your ticket. 

David Fricke

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