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By Michael Henningsen

JUNE 14, 1999: 

Os Mutantes Os Mutantes/Mutantes (Omplatten/Polygram)

Brazil's Os Mutantes have been the best kept secret of psychedelia for the past 30 years. Those in the know (including L.A. psych-pop pranksters the Tater Totz, featuring members of Redd Kross, the Germs and the Three O'Clock, who covered the first album's "Bat Macumba" on 1988's Alien Sleestacks from Brazil) have praised the band to the skies, smug in the knowledge that people who actually have lives could never be bothered to track down the exceedingly rare records to hear for themselves.

But now that a major label has reissued the band's two late-'60s albums on pristine-sounding CDs, it would be easy to be disappointed. Some celebrated obscurities are celebrated only because they're obscure. Well, turns out that, for once, the hipsters are right: Os Mutantes more than live up to the hype.

Os Mutantes, led by American-born singer/flautist Rita Lee, did not create this funhouse-mirror combo of West Coast-style soft pop, psychedelic freakouts and native rhythms in a vacuum: Their patrons (and often, songwriters) were Brazilian music legends Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso and Tom Ze, leaders of Brazil's politically-charged Tropicalism movement. Gil, Veloso and Ze combined the bossa nova style of older Brazilian musicians like Jo???o Gilberto and Antonio Carlos Jobim with youth-oriented revolutionary politics and a healthy dose of rock 'n' roll flash. Os Mutantes are simply the most pop-oriented of the trio's many projects, most of which have, especially in recent years, been more in keeping with jazz and world music traditions.

Of the two albums, Os Mutantes is perhaps the poppier. Rhythms here tend to be more relaxed than on the occasionally harsher Mutantes, with a samba feel in spots that would not be out of place on a Jobim record. Lee's deadpan voice (all lyrics are in Portuguese, though both albums contain English translations) is in the Astrud Gilberto/Francoise Hardy tradition of affectless murmurs; Mutantes' "Fuga II" is a dead ringer for Gilberto, in fact. Vocal arrangements on Os Mutantes tend to be lush and oddly pretty -- the liner notes namecheck the Swingle Singers, though both the Association and the Ray Conniff Singers come to mind as well.

The band's male singers, Arnaldo and Sergio Baptista, take more of the spotlight on Mutantes. Combined with the music's more rock-oriented feel, complete with fuzz-guitar freakouts ("Banho de Lua") and a full-on psychedelic jam ("Caminhante Noturno") at the end, Mutantes sounds somewhat more "normal" than the debut. The swirling "Magica" almost sounds like a Brazilian Beatles circa "Penny Lane," at least until it steals the ending from "Satisfaction"! Start with whichever one sounds more interesting, but be warned -- you're going to end up buying both.


The Fireman Rushes (Hydra)

Paul McCartney has always had a thing for aliases, from his early stage name of Paul Ramon (inspiring everyone's favorite non-brothers, the Ramones) to the original conceit of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band to his 1977 easy-listening version of Ram, released under the name Percy "Thrills" Thrillington. As The Fireman, McCartney and remix king Youth released 1993's Strawberries Ocean Ships Forest, a rather tiresome collection of remixes of a rather tiresome song from McCartney's Off the Ground album. It sounded like the work of someone who understood the tropes of ambient dance music but didn't know what context to put them in.

Apparently recorded without Youth's involvement, Rushes (the title is a sly wink at a line from "Penny Lane") is an immense improvement over the monochromatic Strawberries. Very much like half-ambient, half-pop artists like American Analog Set, Flying Saucer Attack or the folks on Darla Records' Bliss-Out Series, Rushes combines wafty soundscapes, actual melodies, sound effects (the late Linda talking about horses, descriptions of UFOs, a woman masturbating, hammering) and, toward the end of "7 a.m." even one verse of somewhat buried singing. The album flows beautifully, wandering from the acoustic guitars of the opening "Watercolour Guitars" to the sitars, harmoniums and backwards flutes of the '60s-ish "Auraveda" to the mellotrons and random samples coloring "7 a.m.," before ending where it began with the winsome electronics of "Watercolour Rush." It's ironic that it took an alias for Paul McCartney to make his most interesting, listenable album since ... geez, probably Venus and Mars in 1975. But perhaps he should apply this newfound experimentalism to his next "real" album.


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