While American audiences were listening to the silky, unwrinkled delicates provided by the likes of Sergio Mendes and Herb Alpert’s A&M label, Os Mutantes were exploring the darker side of Brazilian life. From the group’s very inception its founding members, Sergio Dias, his brother Arnaldo Baptista, and singer Rita Lee, have used music as a means of protest and revolution. Os Mutantes’ musical activism drew the ire of the Brazilian government, who sought to censor the group’s final official album (prior to reuniting), 1975’s E Seus Cometas No Pais Do Baurets, to the point of delaying its release. After the group’s 2006 reunion, Dias and longtime drummer Dinho Leme continued on with a new lineup and released Haih…Ou Amortecedor in 2009, a beautiful blend of their particular slant of tropicalia with just enough lyrical fire to let you know they hadn’t gotten soft. As far as comeback albums went, Haih contained within it much of the Os Mutantes of yesteryear with just enough modernism to update their particular brand of absurdity for the new millennium.
With its latest release, Fool Metal Jack, anyone hoping to hear an album of tropicalia grooves for those hot summer nights is going to be left wanting. Where Haih had a sense about it that the group simply un-clicked the pause button set in 1975 and continued on from where they left off without any hitch, the group’s latest effort is cumbersome. It isn’t that Dias hasn’t progressed; he has already proven that he has. But listening to the songs on Fool Metal Jack leaves a feeling that Dias was lost in exploring all the things he may have missed during his tropicalia heyday, like prog rock and sludgy proto-metal.
The album opener “The Dream Is Gone”, a delicate portrait of the dark side of the American dream during the most recent housing crisis, echoes with Floyd-ian flare-ups. This musical theme is somewhat revisited on the album closer “Valse LSD”, where the listener gets taken into the group’s acid trip. “Picadilly Willy”, with its sludgy, power treading through hard rain, comes off like a cross between Blue Cheer and Ten Years After, punctuated with Jon Lord style keys. “Time and Space” tries to return the listener to a time when Yes and Rush still mattered, while “Look Out” sees Dias reaching into his inner Styx, managing to extract a psychedelic guitar frenzy, that in spite of itself, provides longtime listeners a slender thread of a link to the band’s more experimental younger days.
When the songs do take a turn towards the sunlight, they still sound as if the group is emulating someone other than themselves. Bordering on self-parody, “Ganjaman” is a protest song done with a wink and a nod towards Jimmy Cliff or Junior Murvin. Singing the song with a slight Jamaican tint almost makes the chorus of “You should’ve known better” sound ironic. “To Make It Beautiful”, with its themes of love, devotion, and personal connection, rather than reflect the gentle beauty of classic ballads such as “Baby”, instead comes off more in line with the sunshine pop of ’60s love child acts like The Association if blended with the schmaltz of ’70s softies Seals and Croft. That lite-ness is held up on “Eu Descobri”, a song that tends to favor Mendes over Mutantes and the album’s lone song in Portuguese. With its simple frame, the song also represents the most traditional sounding of the album’s tracks.
Where the lone Portuguese song represents the most traditional, the album’s title track comes off as the most contemporary sounding song on the album. As Dias drags on his voice, it makes one wonder if even he thinks this song may benefit from the likes of Nick Cave. A song inspired by Dias seeing young, inexperienced soldiers boarding a plane before going to war, it carries a heavy anti-war message. However, with its chorus “Yes, no more war, Yes more war” layering on top of itself, it begins to fall over its own feet, almost to the point of becoming something along the lines of an Elephant 6 punch line.
Music today revels in retro fashions and sounds, incorporating them with new points of view and Os Mutantes showed that they could provide a relevancy in today’s altered musical landscape with their last album. But when the title track of your anti-war album evokes imagery of Vietnam rather than a more contemporary conflict and when, either through their sonics or subject matter (“Bangladesh”), much of the music screams of 1973, rather than 2013, it almost begets the question once posed in the film adaptation of High Fidelity, “Is it in fact unfair to criticize a formerly great artist for his latter day sins”? Where once they were on the cusp of the avant, breaking down walls through experimentation and sonic manipulation, with Fool Metal Jack, rather than come off as updated or even retro-fitted, they simply sound dated.
Essential Tracks: “Eu Descobri”