Os Mutantes, Still Mutating

35 years later, Brazil's goofiest pop band has only gotten goofier

"2000 e Agar," a key track on Haih or Amortecedor, the first new Os Mutantes album in 35 years, begins with a couple of goofy guitar- and accordion-driven forro verses before giving way to an even goofier combo: a psychedelic cabaret riff leading into a Latin cha cha. And just when you think these brief asides signal the end of the song, the band circles back to the forro and subsequent progression/digression one more time. Ordinarily, this would be problematic, but the inexplicable and unpredictable is what this Brazilian band did best and now does so again, nearly four decades later.

Founded in 1965 by teenage brothers Sérgio Dias and Arnaldo Baptista (along with Baptista's girlfriend, Rita Lee), Os Mutantes gobbled up mid-period Beatles and funneled it through the teen culture, experimental art, and emerging political unrest of Brazil. The result was rock 'n' roll without the usual touchstones—of its time, yet timeless. Soon, they joined like-minded musical revolutionaries and spawned the Tropicália movement, which thumbed its collective noise at Brazil's ruling military junta and eventually got stars Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil deported. Os Mutantes played a few shows in Europe before breaking up in 1978, but it was nothing compared to their impact at home.

Their stateside rep came slowly, not really gaining momentum until the '90s, thanks to name-checks by Beck, Kurt Cobain, and especially David Byrne, who released a consumer-friendly OM comp called Everything Is Possible! on his Luaka Bop label in 1999. (Meanwhile, three early Mutantes LPs, all classics, were reissued elsewhere.) Then came a 2006 live reunion, wherein Dias and Baptista played a handful of shows (including the Hollywood Bowl, Chicago's Pitchfork Festival, and a surrealist Webster Hall extravaganza in New York) with the help of several new members—Lee, who has enjoyed a long, successful career in music and television, couldn't be bothered with such nonsense. A live album documenting their London show followed in 2007, promoted with another handful of dates.

Now, two years later, comes Haih or Amortecedor, an entirely new studio work with Dias as the sole original member. Baptista, who often looked lost onstage during those reunion shows, isn't on board this time: Years of drug use reportedly left him in and out of psych wards. (At one point, he threw himself out a five-story window in an apparent suicide attempt.) In sharp contrast with his troubled brother, the no-longer-teenage Dias seems unscathed, his guitar playing bold and mercurial as he conspires with old Tropicalista buddies Tom Zé and Jorge Ben on new songs as playful as ever, odd bits of found sounds and incidental music fading in and out of the mix.

These guys pull together a remarkable glut of ideas, from the electro-samba-bossa-rock of "O Careca" to a slow cabaret dirge called "Baghdad Blues" to the jangle-pop of "O Mensageiro." The aforementioned "2000 e Agar" switches ideas like TV channels; ever the joker, Dias offers "Samba do Fidel," a misnamed Afro-Cuban goof with an arena-rock guitar solo in the middle. Each song is almost laughably different from the others, and generally morphs into something even weirder as quickly as possible. It's hard to live up to a legend, especially one of your own creation, but Haih or Amortecedor is just too wacky and weird to dismiss.

Os Mutantes play Webster Hall October 8

 
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