Hipper Than Thou

Produced by former Talking Heads leader David Byrne.

If you could chart a band's hipness, Os Mutantes would be off the scale.

Beck named his last album after them. Kurt Cobain begged them to reunite

and open for Nirvana when they toured Brazil. Kathleen Hanna of Bikini

Kill wrote an appreciation of them. Stereolab, L7 and the Posies are all

fans. Not bad for a band from Brazil that sang in Portuguese and

produced its most influential work more than 30 years ago.

It's even more remarkable when you consider that their music has been

available only as hard-to-find Brazilian imports. But now their time has

finally come. Omplatten has issued the Mutantes' first three albums and

Luaka Bop has compiled Everything Is Possible! : The Best of Os

Mutantes, a collection of the band's greatest moments.

Os Mutantes were part of Brazil's Tropicalia movement during the late

'60s, a radical group of musicians and artists that rewrote not only pop

music, but the entire culture. Most of them were rewarded with exile and

prison, but that's another story. Os Mutantes were the most outrageous

band of that turbulent period, the clown princes of chaos. Their music

digested bits of the Beatles, John Cage, samba rhythms, distorted

guitars, horns and whatever found sounds they happened to stumble

across, only to spit up something entirely new. They appropriated bass

lines from the Zombies, riffed on the Stones' "Satisfaction" and goofed

on Brazilian traditions. In an age of earnest folk music and Marxist

politics, it's impossible to fully comprehend the impact Os Mutantes had

wearing plastic suits, playing electric instruments and western music

and cheekily praising capitalism. All these years later, the fun they

were having translates louder than ever. Rarely has experimental music

sounded so pop, and vice versa. Their anything-goes brand of psychedelic

music and pop-savvy collage still sounds wonderfully strange and

surprisingly current.

Their first album, Os Mutantes, is a classic of sorts, and still

stands as their finest achievement. It opens with "Panis et Circensis" (RealAudio excerpt),

a kaleidoscopic circus number with an explosive horn section, lilting

beat and unforgettable, surging melody. "A Minha Menina" is an

infectious pop song -- complete with a knowing "Bop Bop A Shoo Bop"

refrain -- punctuated by huge slabs of fuzz guitar. "Bat Macumba" is an

aggressively funky rhythmic workout, featuring some jaw-dropping

distortion. The gentle, almost ambient

"Le Premier Bonheur du Jour" shows off the band's gorgeous harmonies.

They transform Gal Costa's signature song, "Baby" (RealAudio excerpt), from a breathy,

acoustic samba into a great pop song with a shuffling beat, impassioned

vocals and generous swaths of organ and electric guitar.

There is a slight drop-off in quality on Mutantes, the

confusingly titled second album. As the band's experiments became more

organic and disciplined, they lost some of their edge and excitement.

Still, there's no shortage of wonderful songs. "Nano Va Se Perder Por

Al" cuts a fuzz-driven groove with infectious chanting that sounds like

it could have come off the latest Boredoms album, if you exclude the

Beatle-esque chorus and country fiddle break. "Dia 36" pits delicate

acoustic guitar against phased vocals and an ominous, spacey background.

"Fuga No II" offers their skewed take on Brazilian music, swinging

between lush orchestrations and simpler samba rhythms.

By the third album, A Divina Comedia, the band's psychedelic

music sounded less singular and more than a little like Jefferson

Airplane. The album comments on pop music, playing it for a big joke. It

might have been funny if you were involved in the scene at the time, but

today much of the overwrought singing sounds forced and strident. But

there are still a few gems, notably the slinky rhythms of "Ando Meio

Desligado" (RealAudio excerpt), the swooning beauty of the space-folk "Ave Satan" and the

seductively crooned "Desculpe, Babe."

The albums kept coming, but with diminishing results as Os Mutantes

became infatuated with progressive rock. As always, there were some fine

songs, most of which have been expertly rescued by the Luaka Bop

compilation, Everything Is Possible!: The Best of Os Mutantes.

Among the finds are a stunning version of "Baby," sung in English with a

stripped-down arrangement, and the raucous, faux-mariachi cha-cha-cha of

"El Justiciero." Everything Is Possible! does an exemplary job of

culling the best moments from their catalog, taking six songs from the first album and the best three from the third. It inexplicably shorts the second album by only choosing two tunes, but that's a minor quibble. It serves as a

good introduction to a band whose expansive subterranean influence is

only now coming to light.