Os Mutantes

For three decades, between the release of their self-titled 1968 debut album and Beck’s 1998 Mutations—whose name is a tribute to the São Paolo legends—there wasn’t much talk about Os Mutantes. That started to change after Mutations dropped and the record’s best song, “Tropicália,” a lush homage to the Brazilian psych-pop sound that Mutantes helped forge, started to get serious burn on college radio and mixtapes. The next year, David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label released a Mutantes compilation, and in 2008, the band hit paydirt when their classic track “A Minha Menina” was featured on a McDonald’s commercial for the 2008 Olympics. By then, ostensible leader Sérgio Dias Baptista had already reformed the band, and recent albums, including this year’s Fool Metal Jack, show that they can still conjure up magic, even without most of their founding members.

Fri., Nov. 8, 7:30 p.m., 2013


Os Mutantes

After bucketloads of reissues, championing from Byrne and Beck, triumphant reunion tours, and the unanimous approval of anyone with ears, Brazilian tropicàlia godsends Os Mutantes have finally emerged with their first new album in 35 years. Sure, it lacks the sun-kissed weirdness and giddy mind-fuckery of the music they made in the ’60s, but it does have the same infectious spirit of unabashed fun they bring to every one of their explosive live shows. Full of sex, joy, communal spirit and the acid-washed glee of the most confetti-soaked Flaming Lips shows, they’re truly not to be missed. With DeLeon.

Thu., Oct. 8, 6:30 p.m., 2009


Os Mutantes, Still Mutating

“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


Fifth Street Tropicália (in Furs)

Tropicália in Furs, a hole-in-the-wall Brazilian record shop in the East Village, is the kind of place New Yorkers worry will disappear from the city forever. A tiny alternate universe where Technicolor dots bounce off glossy LP covers by Os Mutantes, the Cramps, and Martha Reeves & the Vandellas, it’s never crowded or empty, and the same affable connoisseur is always behind the counter.

Joel (pronounced “jo-EL”) Olveira, whose old-school afro and proto-hip-hop wardrobe make him look younger than his 36 years, opened the store’s first incarnation five years ago in a flooded basement on the Bowery under the motto “Buy, Sell, Barter, Chit-Chat,” quickly attracting a following with his warm demeanor and overflowing knowledge of late-’60s psychedelic Brazilian rock. Among serious collectors and DJs, word began to spread about the unequaled treasures Olveira kept hidden in a crate in the back of the store—possibly the best collection of obscure Tropicália singles on earth.

“I’m telling you, there is nowhere else in the world where you can find records like these,” says DJ and producer Egon (a/k/a Eothen Alapatt), who runs the L.A.-based Stones Throw Records, which specializes in independent hip-hop, soul, and funk. He also co-produced Brazilian Guitar Fuzz Bananas: Tropicalista Psychedelic Masterpieces, 1967–1976, a 16-track compilation Olveira is self-releasing in June. The compilation includes songs by some musicians who never recorded again: no-hit wonders like São Paolo–bred Marisa Rossi and Ton & Sergio, whose 10-ton feedback and devastating lyrics make “Vou Sair do Cativeiro” (“Escape From Captivity”) a key track. There are also previously unreleased songs by better-known Tropicália musicians like Paraguayan transplant Fábio, whose “Lindo Sonho Delirante” is a shimmering, trance-like promenade. The title is Portuguese for “Beautiful Delirious Dream,” but the acronym it forms, LSD, told Brazilian bohemes what it was really about. A distillation of thousands of unheard psychedelic gems, Fuzz Bananas exposes the dirty, flamboyant fringe of a subculture conceived in unrest. 

Like a halcyon explosion, the Tropicália movement was brilliant, but brief. Beginning in 1967 as a cultural response to an oppressive military dictatorship, its influence extended to film, art, literature, and, of course, music—later informing the work of musicians like David Bowie, David Byrne, and Kurt Cobain, who once tried, unsuccessfully, to bring Os Mutantes on tour with Nirvana. The sun-drenched music is shambling, dreamy, and endlessly experimental; watchful government censors, poverty, and psychedelic drugs helped beget a lyrical style that is cryptic, abstract, elegiac, and often pulsing with submerged rage. Tropicália utterly redefined Brazilian identity, but lasted only a few years: Some say it ended with the 1968 arrests of Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, widely considered the architects of the movement.

Olveira came to New York from São Paulo 12 years ago with less than $200, and eventually got a job shining shoes at Goldman Sachs. He began using extra cash to buy up Brazilian records—here and back home—to sell at international record fairs for up to 10 times what he paid for them. Soon, he was selling records full-time and had fallen in love with the music he’d always dismissed. “I thought I knew Caetano,” he explains. “I thought I knew Gal [Costa]. I’d seen the album covers a million times, but I realized I had never actually heard this music.”

Much of the stuff Olveira brought back consisted of seven-inch singles; usually too poor to press more than a handful of records, Tropicália musicians would distribute a few copies to radio stations and wait to see if they got any airtime. Most of the time, they didn’t. “These were really tracks that were too much for the time,” said Olveira, who now deejays throughout the city and has a growing Internet business, an East Village radio show, and a music TV show broadcast in Brazil. “This single by Os Falloes Reais, for example, I took it home and tried to play it, but when I put it on my record player, it wouldn’t even go down, because the hole was still too small. It had never been played.”

“Joel was going around and doing the excavations, finding . . . the most progressive, experimental stuff that was only on singles, where you could take the most risks,” said Egon. “Before him—and still today for the most part—it was a bunch of old, fat, white Europeans collecting this kind of music. They don’t buy seven-inches to begin with, and they’re certainly not going to go to these obscure corners of São Paolo and Rio where they might get held up.”

After Beck released the 1998 hit album Mutations, largely an homage to Tropicália, Os Mutantes bootlegs began creeping into indie record stores and DJ booths. Several years later, Devendra Banhart drew acclaim with a freaked-out folk style heavily indebted to the movement, inspiring new waves of interest in the U.S. That affinity remains, but the 16 tracks on Fuzz Bananas have nonetheless only been heard before by a handful of people, making it a kind of Holy Grail of lost Brazilian psychedelia. For those familiar with Tropicália artists like Os Mutantes and Gal Costa, the compilation is like a sub-equatorial Nuggets, complementing the canon with gorgeous burn-out miscellany. The genre’s influence ultimately extended far beyond Brazil, but the movement originally drew energy and sustenance from youth movements sweeping the Anglo-Saxon world in the 1960s, a transference made palpable on covers of the Beatles’ “I Wanna Be Your Man” by Rio surf-rockers the Youngsters, and the Rolling Stones’ “Lantern” by Mac Rybell, who cut their first single in 1967 in Assis, a town so small that locals say the population is “100, counting the dogs.”

Unable to track down many of the musicians, Olveira includes in the liner notes an open appeal for the musicians to contact him for their due cut of whatever profits might accrue. “If I could meet them, I’d hopefully give them some money,” said Olveira. “Then I’d be asking, ‘What else you got down in your basement? What else can I get out there and share?’ “



Olà, Garotas Suecas. Welcome back to Brooklyn. You brought your São Paolo–bred jazz-funk this-a-way a few months ago, but there are some cultural updates you should be apprised of now: First, everyone is over Slumdog Millionaire—don’t bring it up, you’ll look geriatric. Coat-check prices are inversely proportional to the economy. Don’t eat the peanut butter. And, most importantly, the dancing is full and frenetic—the passive shoegazers got priced out, and upbeat bands are the escapist salve at every club. Your Os Mutantes–style bateria-and-bass gained traction at SXSW; deliver those same multi-instrumentalist theatrics, and we’ll meet you in the middle.

Mon., April 6, 9 p.m., 2009


Os Mutantes’ Mutantes Live—Barbican Theater, London, 2006

In 1968, Brazil’s junta finally had enough of the Beatles-loving, samba-screwing, monstrous teen prodigies who called themselves Os Mutantes. All three principles—singer-guitarist Sergio Baptista Dias and singer-keyboardist Arnaldo Baptista (bolstered by the audio gizmos of offstage sibling Claudio), times exhilarating, occasionally subversively bridal-gowned vocalist Rita Lee—were exiled, along with other impudent artsos of the tropicália movement.

They returned (and broke up) in the ’70s. But in 2006, Sergio and Arnaldo reunited, replacing a reluctant Lee with the piquant Zelia Duncan: This lineup powered the London concert recorded on Mutantes Live. It’s a best-of as psych-pop musical, where pastel ballads levitate into strobe-lit workouts while Don Quixote, Genghis Khan, and Lucifer are greeted again by lovers, dreamers, schemers, and orchestra: They all still wanna live in “Technicolor.” The romantically vulnerable “I Feel a Little Spaced Out” is a cosmic cue for the spiraling of yearning and boldness, irony and passion, of knowing what’s expected of Latin artistes/world-music collector bait and what they expect of themselves, of everybody. The widescreen spaghetti-western vigilante takeoff “El Justiciero” has a new introduction, easing from Sergio’s usual standard-American dialect into “Hor-hay Bo-o-o-sh-h-h, and hees faithful companion, To-nee Blair”; a “Mambo Star” gets to “plant the flag” in California, satirizing and reveling in the sound and celebrity of Carlos Santana. Sweet peaks of the ’60s and oughties line up, somehow causing foresight and flashbacks of the epic hopscotch of Prince’s Black Album along the way. (Also, Devendra Banhart and Noah Georgeson do no harm on “Bat Macumba.”)


’69 Love Songs

Even within the tropicália movement (which rivals genres like postpunk for artsy-politico content), Brazil’s Os Mutantes stood out with their multi-hemispheric stew and a story that’s pure Behind the Music fodder. Brothers Sergio Baptista (guitar) and Arnaldo Baptista (keyboards)—along with singer Rita Lee—hit a late ’60s/early ’70s peak with their baroque, psychedelicized bossa nova. But after Arnaldo and Rita’s quickie marriage dissolved, she was out of the band, he was frequenting psych wards, and Sergio took to session work, while the band’s catalog remained seemingly permanently out of print. But fans like Beck, Kurt Cobain, and David Byrne emerged, and Mutantes records were reissued stateside in the late ’90s. While Sergio and Arnaldo renewed their family ties, Rita kept to her solo career, so with new singer Zelia Duncan, the Baptistas recently resurrected OM after three decades apart, topping it off with their first ever U.S. shows.

The Webster Hall gig, furthermore, was the first of the first. But after the crowd got over the initial shock of such a world-shaking event, some cold reality sank in. Other than his occasional wry and dry comic singing, Arnaldo added little flair behind his keys while Zelia provided a strangely husky-voiced replacement for Rita’s sweet songbird act, though two young backup singers helped recreate the records’ decorative harmonies. It also didn’t help that toward the middle of the show, the band favored its Americanized mid-’70s period rife with Eurovision pap (“Virginia”) and soggy English lyrics (“Top Top”).

But Sergio soon brushed those quibbles aside and stole the show. Decked out in knee-high boots and long scarves, he beamed smiles and praised Gotham more than a visiting politician, only too glad to play the guitar god rock star role as he peeled off solo after solo of sustained, Santana-ish fuzztones while leaning forward into the crowd for emphasis. And toward the end of the 90-minute affair, Os Mutantes hit their stride as Sergio one-upped Eric Carmen with “Balada Do Luoco,” a ballad framed by turkey calls and acidic guitar solos—a rapid-fire rock number (“Cabeludo Patriota”) and a joyous doo-wop piece (“A Minha Menina”) followed in kind. At those moments,, their bizarre sense of humor and history emerged intact, which is more than you can say of most ’60s bands who speak psychedelia as a first language.



In Macunaíma, cinema novo pioneer Joaquim Pedro de Andrade adapted a masterpiece of Brazilian modernism to reflect the simultaneous triumph of tropicalismo and onset of military dictatorship. Pure essence of 1969, the movie is a funny, freewheeling mélange of primitive myth and Busby Berkeley, hippie street theater and cabaret star Grande Otelo, glamorized urban guerrillas and documented candomblé rituals; it’s full of racial high jinks, with a free-floating cannibal metaphor applied most savagely to a capitalist ogre. Macunaíma was originally released here dubbed and cut as Jungle Freaks (and later floated as a post–El Topo midnight movie). It thereafter vanished from U.S. consciousness, but thanks to this restoration (and like the parallel avant-pop manifestation Os Mutantes) it seems poised to re-enter our history.


Essence of Tropicália

I was not my first choice for this piece. I was hoping a Portuguese speaker or, even better, someone who actually witnessed Tropicália’s birth would step up to wave the flag for the Gilberto Gil reissues. But these CDs have been sitting in the racks for months and nobody’s dancing in the streets, so you’re stuck with a fan who means to convince you that they’re not just this year’s nice old sounds. Their story goes something like this.

In 1967, Gilberto Gil and his fellow freedom fighters (Tom Zé, Caetano Veloso, and Gal Costa, among others) launched the Tropicália movement by hugging the music of the world. Caetano Veloso described the time in a mid-1990s interview: “We listened to Jimi Hendrix and were fascinated by his creativity; we heard James Brown and loved his energy; we heard the Beatles with their happiness and lightness and we were happy that all this existed.” They caused a riot at São Paulo’s televised 1968 International Music Festival while wearing plastic clothes and silenced hometown xenophobes by making pop records that sounded all the more Brazilian for their admixture and theft. They made some delicious pop music, oh golly. See the excellent Tropicália Essentials (Hip-O), which shares half its tracks with the collective’s less varied but equally excellent self-compiled 1968 manifesto Tropicália ou Panis et Circensis, for supporting documents of the time.

Tropicália’s recent resurgence has been bolstered by the ageless Veloso’s theater shows (documented on his new, shiny, and very Broadway Prenda Minha [Verve]) and hipsters discovering reissues of Os Mutantes, who leaned heavily on Gil and Veloso for their first and best album. The current trickle-down versions being attributed to folks like Beck and Cibo Matto are more misfiled bossa nova than new-school Tropicália. First time around, Tropicália was a hairy, gorgeous mess, and nobody embodied the mess more than Gil, the huggiest of them all. He is as big today as he was then on ’60s-associated attributes like fellow feeling, community concern, and “Let’s jam!” enthusiasm. Unlike Caetano, though, Gil hasn’t made many records I’ve wanted to hear since he traded in John Lennon for Bob Marley (though Grammy voters obviously dig his world reggae inna drum clinic style), so I’m not surprised other folks haven’t been digging in his crates.

This is sad for all involved. Even when his records haven’t served them, Gil’s songs are vigorous things, stretched between the athletic chug of forró and the sexy suspension of samba but never snapping. His quick-stepping rhythms and long-legged melodies vault right over “Ipanema” stereotypes. And Gil is easily the most rocking of the Tropicálistas: His solo acoustic shows sweat, hard. Witnesses from Rio’s 1999 carnival say Gilberto Gil doing off-the-rack reggae was still a pretty electrifying Gil. His sins of overstatement (see Quanta Live) lead him far enough away from the sangfroid and muted syncopation of bossa that you understand why indie rockers, already chary of “cheesy” emotions and expressions, have been more interested in quiet buddies like Caetano and founding stoner João Gilberto, whose new João Voz e Violão (Verve) is beautiful and mumbly enough to pull the bowlies. Bossa’s restraint is sorely missed in Gil’s music now, but you can’t blame him for getting the balance wrong. His early records worked hard to dispel the notion that Brazilian pop is a long, cool drink of water with lyrics in a funny language. Gilberto Gil’s ferocious syncretism has little use for understatement. He whoops and hollers his way through the harmonies and rhythms jammed into the corners. Gil is Tropicália’s rude essence.

Last June, Polygram Brazil released Ensaio Geral, a big, shiny, expensive box ($170 on right now) that collected the six albums Gil released commercially for Polygram between 1966 and 1977 as well as six CDs of outtakes and live material. These titles have now been released individually and are available for around $13.99 each (try or Five of the six solo records of the box—Louvação, three albums titled Gilberto Gil, and Expresso 2222—are pretty much sure bets for anyone who likes a tune and a beat. Though Gil had been writing and recording since 1965 (“Louvação” had already been a hit for Elis Regina by the time Gil’s version was released), 1967’s Louvação is Gil’s first album under his own name. Gil makes bossa celebratory, giving it his all but never giving the crowd what they already know. He sounds feather-light on “Beira-Mar” but on “Louvação” and “Roda” he establishes career tropes: fast pacing, fluid fingerpicking, and ambitious melodies. He starts coloring outside the lines, slashing at his acoustic like he’s on loan from the Feelies, sending his voice way past the written tune with ecstatic slides. Gil wants to take the music higher, and you can tell bossa won’t hold him long.

After temporarily relocating from Salvador, the capital of Bahia, to São Paulo, Gil & Co. met Os Mutantes and composer Rogerio Duprat. The collective often worked, implausibly, on São Paulo TV, appearing in national song contests and hosting variety shows, even when in political disfavor. Arranged and “directed” by Duprat and played, in part, by Os Mutantes, Gil’s 1968 self-titled album is one of the collective’s finest moments. A grainy color Xerox of English go-go rock and Bahia folk, it sounds like 1968 AM radio played over soccer stadium speakers. The opener, “Frevo Rasgado,” is a lost game-show theme that prepares no one for “Coragem Pra Suportar,” a Pavement tune 20 years early, full of scraping sounds, goofy flutes, and the “Taxman” bassline. (“Eleanor Rigby” and “Hang On Sloopy” pop up later.) In “Marginália II,” boozy horns and strings battle it out at simultaneous weddings while Gil sends his voice up like a kite in a tornado, untroubled by the hubbub.

Hardliner General Costa e Silva put an end to all this fun with the Fifth Institutional Act of December 13, 1968, which sent Gil and Veloso to jail. After their release, they were allowed to work under house arrest in early 1969 for approximately four months, each recording an album’s worth of songs with acoustic guitar and voice and sending the tapes off to Duprat, who fleshed them out (to put it mildly). Soon both hit the racks with yet another self-titled album. For a guy under the government’s thumb, Gil sounds unusually perky. Drummer Wilson Das Neves does an elastic take on Clyde Stubblefield while Lanny Gordin, a major presence on these albums, gets a lot of mileage out of one electric guitar. Hipsters will gravitate toward his free jazz codas, stereo field abuse, and other “nonmusical” signals, but the noisy bits aren’t what made these albums contemporary then and they’re not what make them current now. Without the band kicking and Duprat channeling as much pop as Stockhausen, they wouldn’t have equaled the English pop the Tropicálistas loved.

In 1972, after two years’ exile in London, Gil returned to Brazil and recorded Expresso 2222, a significant break point that coincides with Gil’s participation in the Afro-Brazilian consciousness movement, which continued through the ’70s. Gone are the soigné turns of bossa and major-to-minor pop moves; in their place is a supple Afro-Brazilian funk that Gil would favor for the next 20 years. “O Canto da Ema” is Gil bouillon, a fast-moving, long melody cycling over a Fela ostinato guitar while drummer Tutty Moreno, as major a discovery as Gordin, stutters perfectly. The album closes with two solo voice-and-guitar songs, “O Sonho Acabou” and “Oriente.” Gil’s more-is-more playing and singing style provides enough rhythm and sound to cover the lack of bass and drums. If anyone can show up with a guitar and a microphone and make a big sound, it’s Gil.

Which is what he does on O Viramundo, a live album recorded mostly in 1972. Expresso 2222 done live, it’s a keeper from the opening duet with Veloso, “Cada Macaco no Seu Galho,” to the juicy 16-minute band workout “Brand New Dream.” The band is on a par with James Brown’s best, especially on the multilayered “O Bom Jogador.” Moreno is a treat no matter how many times he channels Lenny White, and Gordin spits fire. Cidade do Salvador, a previously unreleased 1974 double album, is a calmer, more fusion-prone elaboration on Expresso 2222. The rhythms are still the people’s; Fela is very much present on the delicious “Umeboshi,” and the drums get pleasantly papery on “Essa É Pra Tocar no Rádio.” The lead track, “Meio de Campo,” and “Eu Só Quero um Xodô” made a perfect 45 when they were released together in 1974.

Even Gil’s failures can set you free: a little great artist shtick, a jam gone over the cliff, too much hope for his fellow citizen. Couldn’t the last album you bought use a little of that kind of reach? In the midst of all the humming, smiling Powerbooks, Gil’s generous, forceful abraço spills over the edges, embarrasses and suffocates you a bit. Hug it back and live large for once.


Sweating Pheromones

I don’t mean to stick a flower in the rifle of rock’n’roll, but there’s nothing like a few gunshots to focus the mind on good cheer, particularly when the dust clears from the martini glass through which we view it. It’s 1968, and the youthful future constituents of Ross Perot are attempting to melt their parents’ Wallace buttons into roach clips, but they’re also overturning Esso pumps and dropping pigs on the New York Stock Exchange. In Paris, the kids are storming streets, fists in air, baguettes glistening in the sun, copy of Althusser in their back pockets—Your brother may die in Vietnam, Capitalism is a monster, but this is fun! Below the equator, Ché’s by this point useless in Bolivia, but his poster’s still sweating pheromones. And Costa e Silva is kicking the ass of the Brazilian congress. The dictatorship is on, and it ain’t sexy, like China’s. Or is it? What does Democracry mean to a country that never quite possessed it, beyond a chattering class, and how does a free spirit respond to the new boss?

Toked-up Brazilian psychedelic trio Os Mutantes records a definitive version of sambamaster-gone-hardcore Jorge Ben’s “A Minha Menina,” with echoed giggling, fuzz guitar and Sandra Dee–style boy-girl lyrics, which they punctuate with shoo-be-do-wah-yeahs of a nature both more convincing and light-hearted than Lou Reed would accomplish on Loaded a couple years later. This isn’t “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” or even “Eve of Destruction”—it’s deeply felt formal theater, like Ruben and the Jets. It rocks percussively, it smells pretty good, you mimic their giggles. But perhaps the laughter is in contempt. Is ’50s rock’n’roll some stand-in for an oppressive regime? You can never tell with those life-is-theater folks. (Why else would anyone wear sunglasses indoors?)

The world was on fire, and Brazil responded with a brainy lap dance. How often can you fuck to satire? “A Minha Menina” can be found on Os Mutantes’s self-titled first LP, finally out domestically along with the next couple (1969’s Mutantes and 1970’s A Divina Comédia Ou Ando Meio Desligado, all with well-meaning if kinda cheesy packaging—why no Portuguese lyrics? Why aren’t the songwriters in the CD booklet?), as well as on World Psychedelic Classics One: The Best of Os Mutantes: Everything Is Possible, a well-considered Mutantes compilation (solid liner notes) coming out this week on David Byrne’s (of course, of course) Luaka Bop label.

The approach of these CDs isn’t all that different from the meaningful frou-frou that was the Tropicalia movement at the time, and, in fact, Mutantes, as awe-inspiring as they were, are consistently overrated just a wee bit, what with the pretty girl (singer Rita Lee, future ’80s star, topless on the cover of Divina, yes, yes y’all), the punchy guitars and the fact that a lot of the Brazilian material from this period is just now getting a hearing in this country. It’s the first LP that really makes the reputation—a petri dish for the Tropicalia experiment, it rocks harder, pre-Santana, then almost anything from Tropicalia’s moment, save some Jorge Ben.

But, like much Tropicalia, Os Mutantes the album also throws a pretty good change-up. Last year’s Tropicalia 30 Años box of Mutantes, Veloso, Gal Costa, et al. has turned a lot of heads 360 degrees, and those of us who grew up listening to the scrape of Milton Nascimento buffing Paul Simon’s toupee and Neil Schon soloing off Flora Purim’s vulva are undergoing considerable psychiatric readjustment. And the supply would appear endless, just as with Moog records a half-decade ago. Sure, Veloso was singing about flying saucers more deeply than anyone this side of Screaming Jay Hawkins’s Reichian therapy. But you mean to tell us that Sergio Mendes was recording psychedelic drumming suites in the ’70s? That Egberto Gismonti recorded the first Stereolab LP? That Hermeto Pascoal forged the great pathway between Charles Mingus, Enoch Light, and Amon Düül I? And that these aren’t even Tropicalia artists, per se? Although Os Mutantes was more of a band, you’ll find Brazil’s orchestrations of the time more subversive than Mutantes’ guitars, more so than even George Martin’s orchestrations—easy-listening as an avant-garde.

Great art doesn’t always stand the test of time, but it does seem to come back for a proper misunderstanding. The Beatles really were the Monkees, and Tropicalia, like much hip-marginal stuff these days, lays Le Historia del Rock on an olive branch of equal jokey seriousness with, say, Philly teen and Everly crooners, lounge (at the time, a nonsense term), “ethnic” and “folk” traditions (more nonsense terms), yé-yé melancholia, and the usual avant-pitstops. And Tropicalia seems the one music capable of bringing together the tight-sphinctered Devo-haircut thrift-store sophisticates with the funky-ass white-boy grad-school primitives.

But as Chuck D put it, “We’re all the same. No we’re not the same.” And speaking of civil war, civil war made Brazil, for awhile, the world’s largest debtor, but musically, the world seemed to return the favor. In their pop-’60s eclecticism, the first two Os Mutantes records could be Elephant 6 releases, even if they cover the Francois Hardy–identified “Le Premier Bonheur du Jour,” Swingle Singers–style. They heard the connections back then. Why are we snobs only hearing them now?

But Brazil is a land of soap operas all day long, and it would only make sense that a group of All Day Progressives would literalize that in their music—progressive means something under a dictatorship. So, Mutantes (album number two) starts with Rita Lee’s jaded “Hungry Like the Wolf” yawn, then winds up more like Jefferson Airplane and less excitable than the first record. It’s better than Crown of Creation, especially as you need to know Portuguese to make out the sci-fi stuff. After skimming Tropicalia’s cream for their debut, they take up most of the songwriting themselves, and the in-jokes age well because the band seems so anachronistic copping “Satisfaction” and “Wooly Bully.” I hear the Fugs, too, or at least their methodology. They should be overturning Esso pumps, but instead they’re starting their own gas station—not a better record than the first, but a smarter one.

And then, too smart. By Divina, the Arnaldo Brothers, Lee’s partners in crime, have been listening to King Crimson, and as LKJ put it: “Inglan is a bitch.” Especially U.K. radio in 1970. Rock itself was suffering a similar virus, from Psych to Heavy to Prog. Divina is more leaden than heavy, more digressive than eclectic—you can’t chew on a riff for too long. But it sort of dares you not to like it with its expansiveness, like that kid in Rushmore, and I find that admirable. There’s too much German-friendly organ, and the best you can say is that it doesn’t sound like “Hush,” though it doesn’t sound like “Let’s Go Crazy,” either. Except that it does kind of sound like “Hush.” But “Oh! Miur Infidel” sounds out-and-out manly, like the Spencer Davis Group after Steve and Muff saw a chance and took it.

And then the band started to suck, as all bands eventually do, but you’ll have to shell out serious cash for the imports to hear it. So the joy drains a bit. So what? In 1969, Fela Kuti, of analogous passive-aggressive political position, is recording catchy ditties in praise of the Biafran war. You can’t listen to ideas, and sometimes it’s better to take the side of art over life. Call me ahistorical. I wish. I point my pistol. Dance clown!