Stereo Type A
When Cibo Matto made it to MTV in 1996 with a goofy, giddy novelty song called "Know Your Chicken," the natural reaction among the previously uninitiated was to write the duo off as a one-joke gimmick. The idea of two thickly accented Japanese expatriates living in New York and playing pop music immediately conjured the notion that this was just Shonen Knife with a sampler: the kind of group that people find endearing because of the sheer ineptitude of the music.
Those who bothered to explore beyond "Know Your Chicken" were inevitably surprised to find that the group's debut album, Viva! La Woman was a truly delightful pop album. Far from being a shoddy novelty act, Cibo Matto showed that they were highly skilled, post-modern tunesmiths, blithely borrowing elements from every subgenre that captured their fancy. Maybe because they're outsiders in this culture, they approach Western pop-music forms without any sense of irony or smugness, but with a genuine sense of enthusiasm that makes them somewhat fresher than a similar group like Luscious Jackson.
Stereo Type A refines the concept, finding vocalist Miho Hatori and keyboardist/vocalist Yuka Honda exploring house, bossa nova, jazz and even heavy metal. The funky "Spoon" finds Honda and Hatori harmonizing beautifully on a track that suggests the kitschier pop moments of the Cardigans.
"Flowers" explores bossa nova much more successfully than Cibo Matto bassist Sean Lennon did on his 1998 solo album, at least partly because Honda and Hatori are much more affecting vocalists than the terminally whiny Lennon. In fact, much of Stereo Type A feels like the kind of kitchen-sink masterwork Lennon was shooting for himself, but simply couldn't pull off.
The album's music is rich enough to stand on its own, but a perpetual bonus comes from the offbeat, but strangely insightful, lyrics. The opener, "Working for Vacation," is a spoken social critique that questions the evolution of a society that is increasingly violent and stressful: "I need to talk to an ancient Egyptian to know the transcription/To read the prescription for the friction we've got."
In a sillier vein, "Sci-Fi Wasabi" is pure surreal cityscape, delivered by Hatori in a manner that suggests Yoko Ono trying to front Public Enemy: "The start button has been pushed already/Obi Wan Kenobi is waiting for me in Union Square." It's one of the few times on Stereo Type A that Cibo Matto sounds like a novelty act. But even at moments like that, you can't help but love them.
The Best of Os Mutantes
(Luaka Bop/Warner Bros.)
The problem with much--though certainly not all--of what's branded as "Latin rock" these days is that it doesn't bring anything new to the party except for a different language. Hearing a band that sounds like Metallica or The Cure singing in Spanish can be interesting for about 30 seconds, but once the novelty wears off, you're stuck with a band that sounds like Metallica or The Cure.
By contrast, what makes this compilation of Os Mutantes (The Mutants)--a wildly eclectic Brazilian band of the late '60s and early '70s--so enduring is that this trio really created music that felt like a fusion of cultures.
The group was a revolutionary force in '60s Brazil, even getting booed off a 1967 music festival stage for using electric guitars, an event that strangely mirrored Bob Dylan's experience at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. Like the best British and American pop of that period, they threw out the rule books and melded rhythms and instrumentation in new ways.
The booklet for this 14-song collection reveals how singer Rita Lee Jones brought a can of bug spray to a recording session. The result, heard on the Zombies-like madrigal confection "Le Premier Bonheur Du Jour," works to perfection. The 1968 track "Dia 36" features phased vocals that evoke the Rolling Stones' "In Another Land," not to mention an inverted wah-wah effect that the booklet dubs a "wooh-wooh" sound. The band's biographer accurately says the "guitar sounded like it about to throw up."
What's most impressive about Os Mutantes is that they could go from something that trippy to a straightforward bossa nova tune like "Baby" (sung in English by Jones in a 1971 remake). But maybe the best track on this uniformly fascinating disc is "A Minha Menina," which starts off like a conventional samba, but quickly gets a dose of fuzz-tone guitar and wonderfully loopy "bopp-shoo-op" backing vocals on the chorus. It's a cultural collision of a tune that stands apart from practically everything else that was recorded at that time.
Over the course of the '70s, the group's lineup slowly dissolved, and Os Mutantes succumbed to the horrors of prog-rock. But this compilation captures both the band, and pop music in general, at a time of wide-eyed wonder and creative wanderlust. Though the group has long had admirers in the underground-rock scene, The Best of Os Mutantes will probably be a revelation for most listeners, who had no idea that one of the great, lost '60s pop bands sang in Portuguese.
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