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Os Mutantes
Everything Is Possible!
Luaka Bop

Let's face it. Nothing's ever as good or as bad as everybody says it is. So when critics trip over their lists of glowing adjectives used to describe Os Mutantes and the band's latest record, Everything Is Possible!, a greatest hits compilation (kind of), the learned reader should step back from his New York Times Magazine and ask the rhetorical: "Wait a minute! If this music's so good, how come I never heard it before." Which is also the kind of skepticism you, dear Press reader, too possess, right? Right?!

Good. See, Os Mutantes hasn't existed in its original incarnation -- brothers Sergio and Arnaldo Baptista and Rita Lee -- for nearly 30 years, and the fact that this renewed interest in the Brazilian band's music and the type of music it represents, Tropicalia, was spurred almost single-handedly by Talking Heads front man David Byrne should make you, dear reader/Sound Exchange shopper, weary of having culture handed down to you from above. Byrne started his record label, Luaka Bop, about ten years ago for the express purpose of importing these South American sounds, Os Mutantes' included. So if David Byrne, who we all think is pretty cool, likes this music, it must be "good." Right? Right?!

Not always. But Byrne is now looking like some sort of cultural savior or archaeological genius. He has rescued Tropicalia -- and its progenitors like Os Mutantes (The Mutants), Tom Ze and Gilberto Gil -- from the barren wastelands of obscurity. Many praises and offerings of coins be made unto the hopelessly white guy who at once markets the sounds of Brazil's most diverse peoples to a country forever starved of diverse voices while making a ton of money at it in the meantime. That Tropicalia is generally pleasing is serendipitous. Nice shot from half-court with your eyes blindfolded, David.

But please, dear reader/Kmart shopper, don't think I'm suggesting Byrne is merely some capitalist snob. (Is that a redundancy?) His motivation as a businessman appears sincere, and his inspiration as an artist has always been there on his sleeve. David Byrne, the showman, was not created in a vacuum.

The way the American singer sings a song like, say, "Psycho Killer," off the Talking Heads' 1977 album, Talking Heads '77, is so much like the way Arnaldo Baptista sings "Cantor de Mambo" on Everything that the only difference between their two deliveries is language. "Psycho Killer" is in English and French, "Cantor de Mambo" in "Portunhol," a mix of Portuguese and Spanish. Like Byrne before him, Baptista sings his lines as if he's crying to a departing airplane as it carries aloft and away his favorite pet rock. Sad but silly. Arnaldo Baptista's freneticism -- the way he unnecessarily extends words with deliberate vibrato, the way he shifts from high to low to real high register, the way he blurts spirited unhh's and huhh's in between and after verses -- points toward the making of one David Byrne. Only the music remains slightly varied.

The "Mambo" is a song about a successful mambo singer now living in the United States and is modeled after the life of our Sergio Mendes. As Lee intones the intro lines in monotone, a Hammond B-3 buzzes expectantly in the background and the tink, tink, tink of the cowbell lets you know some serious mambofying, booty-shakin' beats are gonna be a-happenin' soon. And they are. Heavy electric guitar work -- which is a takeoff on Carlos Santana and the way he shunned miking his amplifiers and just turned a bunch of them on ten -- soon takes over the Anglo-Latino dynamic. The loud guitar suits the mood. Musically and sociopolitically.

Why? During Os Mutantes' heyday, Brazilian popular music was based solely on ethnic instrumentation. A couple notes on the electric guitar were enough to make the record-buying S‹o Paulo-ruled, left-leaning public label Os Mutantes -- and its contemporaries and predecessors like Ze, Gil and Gal Costa -- imperialists and/or North American sellouts.

But if anything, the Tropicalists were nationalists. They were inspired by the writings of Oswald De Andrade, an antiestablishment modernist who penned the The Cannibalist Manifesto (note its likeness to a communist treatise of similar-sounding name) in the '20s. De Andrade wanted Brazilian artists to take North American culture, high and low, and incorporate it into their South American art. Signify on it. Use it to expand their South American message(s).

Which is kind of like what rap artists do today. They take a significant piece of the dominant, sanitized, boring white culture and put their signatures all over it it. The fact that sampling really is more than having the ability to pay a $40,000 usage fee is something most listeners can't comprehend. People like hating rap for that reason, just as similar ignoramuses were pissed at the Tropicalists way back when. Artists who break the norm pay the price.

And one of the best things about Everything is that it sounds as contemporary as anything on your, dear reader's, Soundwaves shelves today. Like Tropicalia in general, which mixed Brazilian folk with modern (mainly American '60s) rock, the songs on Everything are the reality of the reflection that is American pop today, from Beck to the High Llamas, in which the intermingling of genres is the norm, not the alternative. The Mutants are finally in vogue.

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