Everything Is Possible!
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 So 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.
The band cuts some formulaic or pretentious fare, sure. Sometimes the players forget they're in a groove, and a rather tedious groove at that, which makes for real annoying listening. Such a song might be great atmosphere or swingin' party music, but it's not anything that made Os Mutantes exceptional in the first place. When the sweet, California-flavored guitar lines of "Ando Meio Desligado," an ode to marijuana, float over the head-boppin' bongos and bass line, you know some seriously groovy things are happening. The whispered harmonies call to mind sunshine, polyester, love beads and eternally yellow sunflowers...
But when Os Mutantes beats the crap out of a jam, as it does on "Bat Macumba," the band reveals why you, dear reader/CDNOW patron, would have never heard of it were it not for Mr. Byrne. Its efforts at subversion are too deliberate. Nothing nobody has never done before in English. (Though, admittedly, listening to music to which no one -- including you, dear reader/Blockbuster member -- knows the words is a plus. Hard to sing along when your tongue's trapped in English.)
And a quick look at the promo sticker, which accompanies the CD, explains the musicians' newfound coolness. They were snappy dressers. As the three main Mutants are suspended in midair, hovering in quite simply the most beautifully, probably computer-enhanced, sky-blue sky, their clothes take great prominence: Lee, in the middle with her long brownish-blond hair down, wears a brightly colored flannel shirt, a red down vest, faded blue jeans and -- the best part -- brown moccasin boots. Up to the knee. Replete with tassels. The Baptista brother to her left has his arm in a sling and wears a suitable plaid suit, while the other brother, to her right, wears, most notably, blue candy-stripped white pants and what look like white Chuck Taylors. The whole scene is very '60s-ish, Tropicalia, groovy. It's all very cool...
For now, at least.
-- Anthony Mariani
Demon Angel: A Day and Night with Roky Erickson
Not Records Tapes/Amsterdamned
Popular music is the bastard child of the art world. It gets born, gets a lot of attention in its infancy (especially if it's new-looking, or screams a lot, or makes a lot of money) and then gets largely forgotten. But legends, myth-size stories to accompany the sounds, often keep new releases coming. And coming. And coming...
As a result we get "blessed" with every utterance to have ever left John Lennon's, Jimi Hendrix's or Kurt Cobain's mouth. Recordings the artists had usually judged themselves to be unworthy of release get released -- because the myths have grown so large that even inferior work becomes marketable.
Though certainly not on a level with Hendrix, et al., Texan Roky Erickson took a different route to larger-than-life status. Instead of dying, he "went crazy." So now we get albums such as his latest, Demon Angel: A Day and Night with Roky Erickson, which was recorded almost 15 years ago. The key difference between dead and crazy, though, is that crazy Roky Erickson knows he is performing for an audience and the recording is something he wants the audience to hear. (After almost every song on the album, Erickson asks the crowd, "Did ya like that?") And that knowledge, that awareness of the audience, makes this new album a fascinating, beautiful portrait of Erickson. Even ten years after he went crazy.
Before he lost it, from 1966 to the early '70s, Erickson fronted the 13th Floor Elevators, known to people who write liner notes as "arguably America's first psychedelic band," and known to people who listen to music as a great band, whose albums -- especially Easter Everywhere and The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators -- still sound good after more than 30 years.
But then, for Erickson, came the cuckoo's nest. It's the stuff of legend: genius songwriter gets busted for marijuana, attempts to beat the rap by getting committed to a mental institution, returns to society genuinely crazy. In liner-notesese, "The [13th Floor Elevators] dissolved when Roky, in an attempt to beat the system, was committed to Rusk State Mental Institution to avoid prosecution for marijuana possession. His three-year stay forever changed him."
That's putting it mildly. While early records had such titles as Bull in the Woods and Easter Everywhere, post-institution albums had titles such as Mad Dog, Gremlins Have Pictures and the classic, I Think of Demons. And the content of the songs changed as well, going from love and women (e.g., "You're Gonna Miss Me" and "She Lives in a Time of Her Own") to a preoccupation with the occult and evil (e.g., "Bloody Hammer," "Stand for the Fire Demon" and "I Walk with the Zombies").
These two distinct eras are what makes this new release so fascinating, what with all the blending of the songs of love and tales of evil with the 13th Floor Elevators material and the solo stuff. Demon Angel was recorded in 1984, on Halloween, in Austin, and is the soundtrack to a documentary of the same name. The film follows a day and a night with Erickson as he performs, playing acoustic and electric guitar, usually alone, although occasionally backed up on guitar by Mike Alvarez.
More than the guitar playing, though, it's Erickson's voice that delivers these songs. The way he turns and returns to a phrase, all of it sung plaintively, with just a little wail and warble, is what's most noticeable on first listen. And his songs almost always have a chorus or a line that gets repeated again and again, often to chilling effect. By the end of a song, such as the four-and-half-minute "Stand for the Fire Demon" (during which Erickson sings the line "Stand for the fire demon" no fewer than 30 times), there is no way for the listener not to see the effects of three years in a mental institution.
When I realized it was a 15-year-old live album, I was suspicious about the quality, fearing it was something the record company scraped together to make money off the legend. And though it is a live album, the audience is relatively subdued, politely clapping at the end of each song, and the songs of the two eras next to each other make for an intriguing dichotomy. Lyrics as obscure as those to "Two Headed Dog" ("Two-headed dog / I'd be working in the Kremlin with a two-headed dog / Children nailed to the cross") are on the same record as the direct "Hungry for Your Love" ("Hungry for your love / I can't sleep at night / I just can't abide / Because I'm hungry for your love").
If Roky Erickson was broken, or made crazy or "forever changed" by his three years at Rusk, albums such as Demon Angel make me thankful he's still around. His new release is the haunting reflection of not only a genius songwriter but a once-sane person.
-- Abram Shalom Himelstein
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