(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Recording review: Os Mutantes, Fool Metal Jack (2013)

Fragmented diversity has no center

Brazilian Tropicália was a late ‘60s movement dedicated to the principle of melding far-ranging sources into an intriguing amalgam. Culture within Brazil encompasses a wide spectrum, but the movement’s founders, Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso, looked further afield for foreign influences to spice the mixture. Not long after they formed, Brazilian rockers Os Mutantes connected with Gil and found their first musical home in Tropicália, which provides the best context to understand their latest recording, Fool Metal Jack. Its blending of psychedelia, Latin rhythms, and folk harkens back to the band’s roots, along with shades of the prog rock that they moved on to during the early ‘70s. The Tropicália movement also took on political overtones; indeed, many players like Gil and Veloso were harassed and exiled. The band throws in a taste of that as well, so the album reflects various moods and perspectives. Make no mistake, there is strength in diversity. But taken to an extreme, it can be rootless, where elements are too fragmented and the resulting combination has no center. Fool Metal Jack suffers from just that problem. The first several tracks alone meander through lightly psychedelic folk rock, garage rock, bombastic acid rock and pseudo-reggae. There are high moments as well as low but the project lacks a cohesive vision.

This recording comes from a resurrected version of Os Mutantes featuring original member Sérgio Dias. While Dias has surrounded himself with new players, the band’s sounds and influences remain locked on the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. But like a recently thawed guest from the distant past, they occasionally get distracted by shiny bits of modern flash. The opening track, “The Dream is Gone”, could pass for Sir Douglas Quintet or Los Lobos at first, with a simple folky vibe and the light wheeze of accordion. The chorus suddenly transforms the song into a headier space with laser beam synth shots and a strong Pink Floyd influence. Those pew-pew lasers just add distraction to an otherwise decent song. The title track that follows is another poorly executed idea. Following in the unfortunate steps of Bloodrock’s “D.O.A.”, its explicitly disturbing lyrics paint a gruesome picture: “I’m gonna die, shot in the gut/ My blood is everywhere.” As an anti-war song, it fulfills some of the socially conscious aspects of Tropicália, but it’s too heavy-handed with theatrical coughing and grimaces that are strained enough to hear. At least the verses remain moody and dark to match the theme. The chorus goes for a musical revue feel before settling on the tagline, “Yes!/ No more war.”

Fortunately, Fool Metal Jack rebounds from this early low point. “Look Out” captures a modern jam-band funk groove while maintaining some righteous old-school soul moves. The percussion sets a great groove that never settles into simple repetition. Os Mutantes make a couple of idiosyncratic choices, like the goofy, pitch-shifted voices on the chorus, but these work in the context of the track’s wild party vibe. They also toss in interjections of Native American chanting that a contemporary band would replace with a sample. It’s not a deep track, but it does offer a shadow of the band’s younger enthusiasm. Another fun track is “To Make It Beautiful”, which elevates a simple pick-up line into high art. A pretty classical guitar riff introduces the theme, “To make it beautiful/ I learned a secret path/ Magically wonderful/ I need us to create love tonight.” The logic may be convoluted, but the imperative is clear. The sweet madrigal harmonies and light theatricality suggest Queen’s mellower moments. The song drifts in and out of the original sound, picking up Latin beats and psychedelic haze in turn.

With so many stylistic contradictions running through the album, it’s hard to call any song a true outlier. But the best song on Fool Metal Jack stands alone. The band’s cover of Gil’s “Eu Descobri” is the only track in their native Portuguese and features a strong Asian treatment. Where Gil’s original had a playful bossa nova rhythm and paired classical guitar with lush orchestration, Os Mutantes kick off their version with a tabla beat and touches of sitar buzz. The female vocals drift between India and China in tone, but the pacing is not so different than Gil’s. Despite the sparse feel, the band rolls in numerous exotic details – a flute trill here, minor electronic loops there – that give a sense of complexity without overwhelming the fragile beauty of the piece. The character is foreign enough that the classical guitar seems like an interloper when it adds its voice.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

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