Can you remember the first time you heard the Beatles? That day should be listed high among life’s momentous occasions — up there with the first day of school (my ivory dress adorned with turquoise-blue flowers) or learning to drive (a converted Baja Volkswagen Bug, and a stick). The little band from Liverpool imprinted and influenced most of us in profound ways, altering how we related to music, the ways we heard music… and, for musicians for decades to follow, how we played music. I can’t imagine the community in which I came up as a musician — Portland, Oregon, in the ‘90s — without this inventive musical Holy Grail. We wanted to be that inspired, that imaginative, that transcendent. We studied the material, devouring books and films that dissected the songs and the instrumentation of each track, and marveled at the fact that they might do 100 takes of a song… of one song. It was all so remarkable to us.
And there were others, too, who explored maverick musical realms in search of freedom and true expression. The first time I heard Os Mutantes (my Quasi bandmate Sam Coomes played their spectacular first record for me on tour), it was obvious these were artists, creative renegades, psychedelic warriors, pushing the boundaries in the ways the Beatles taught us. A beautiful, unfettered racket exploded from our van speakers. The loose, often free-form music, sung in Portuguese, sounded utterly playful, non-commercial, and mischievous, bursting with exuberance, off-kilter harmonies, and eccentric instrumentation. As a musician interested in how nonconformity informs personal declaration, I craved these unorthodox sounds.
I learned later the band’s complex history began in 1966 with Rita Lee Jones, and brothers Arnaldo and Sergio Dias Baptista. Born into São Paulo, Brazil’s highly inventive, culturally defining Tropicalia scene of the late ‘60s, and against a backdrop of political unrest, the then-teenagers, (along with fellow influential Brazilian artists Caetano Veloso, Gal Costa, Gilberto Gil, Tom Zé, and Torquato Neto) pursued music, poetry and theater as a direct response to their oppressive government. Between 1968 and 1974, a rotating cast of band members, amid a host of personality flare-ups, bountiful drug use, record company disagreements, and government crackdowns, released six studio albums and several live collections. (Two unreleased albums came out years later.) The band officially called it quits in 1978.
After successfully reuniting in 2006 for a few shows, and a record of new songs in 2009, the Sergio Dias-led (he is the only remaining original member), ever-changing lineup of Os Mutantes has released Fool Metal Jack. Some 40 years after the band’s vivid inception, what Os Mutantes stands for has remained somewhat intact. The vibrant, outspoken, mind-expanding world of the late 60’s continues to inform Dias’s instrumentation and his subject matter. The experimental song structures, the stylistic freedom to feature out-of-place, awkward, off-the cuff elements against a political setting harks back to those early albums. In the record company bio for the album, Dias says, “So we did what Tropicalia basically taught us — just eat it, digest it, and throw it up.” This time, however, Dias not only sings in English, but places each distinctly recorded word audibly in the mix. As the record unfolds, with songs like the Pink Floyd-tinged opening track “The Dream Is Gone” or the beautifully embellished “Time and Space,” it’s obvious that what Dias is singing about has emerged as the undeniable priority. Os Mutantes’ decades-long musical exploration culminates here with an album repeatedly probing the big issues: love, war and existence itself. At times, as in the unblushing “To Make It Beautiful,” the language is uncomfortably blatant, like a journal entry you wish you weren’t reading: “Touching your hand is not enough to me/ A single kiss won’t ever do/ I need perpetual change inside of us/ I need the oldest way to feel so good, so fine.” But mostly (and although we do miss Rita Lee’s spirited vocals) Fool Metal Jack furthers the band’s bold examination of life’s elaborate melange.
From the title track, a riff-heavy, theatrical anti-war construction, to the beautiful rendition of Gilberto Gil’s “Eu Descobri” (sung in Portuguese by past Os Mutantes bandmate Bia Mendes) to the quirky, silly rocker “Look Out,” the band exhibits its typical rascally exuberance. “Into Limbo,” resplendent with flute, bells, rich harmonies, an odd time signature, and existential lines like “Letting the flowers grow/Watching the sunset go/ Drinking the waters of your soul/Let it go, just go” sounds like a Summer of Love anthem. The band deftly commands very dissimilar musical styles, jumping easily from the Soundgarden-esque ( “Picadilly Willy”) to Graceland-era Paul Simon (“Ganjaman”). (And as if to perfectly demonstrate the Beatles connection, there’s “Bangladesh,” with its sitar-and-tabla opening.) The album concludes with a peaceful, harmonized ode to the psychedelic journey, an acceptance of finality, of death, of knowing, “Valse LSD.”
With Fool Metal Jack, Os Mutantes further design their collaborative, colorful landscape. They dexterously draw from the past without becoming stuck in it, while continuing their attempt to create a unique vision, one that hints at human truths, at real meaning. It is hopefully what we all strive for as artists. And, perhaps by striving, we inch closer to the Beatles’ visionary brilliance. Or, at least we can try.