Zen Arcade

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Album: Zen Arcade

Artist: Hüsker Dü

Released: July 1st, 1984

Highlights: Something I Learned Today, Never Talking to You Again, Pink Turns to Blue, Turn On the News

For a scene that was as much about music as it was about attitude and having freedom to express one’s ideas, the punk rock movement sure had a lot of unwritten rules that needed to be followed. This weird dichotomy between liberty and restrictions was present at the heart of the genre from day one, and anybody who dared to step out of pre-established expectations, be it by signing to a major label or by not playing songs that were loud and fast, was bound to be shunned by many. It is possible to argue such extremist thoughts were the natural result of a musical ideology that rose to combat, among many other ghosts, the artistic excess and elitist lifestyle of musicians of the 70s; therefore, keeping it all as pure as possible was important. Yet, there is something ironic about the fact that people who often sang against oppression and narrow-minded attitudes were so quick to establish a few guidelines themselves.

Whatever rules punk had, the hardcore movement – its American offspring – seemed to take them to a whole new level. If the Ramones played fast, Black Flag played faster. If the Sex Pistols had simple tunes, Minor Threat made them simpler. If Wire did not care about song structures, the Minutemen created a whole career out of the concept. And if The Clash, even after going into a major label, still did not bow down completely to capitalist practices, as evidenced by the fight the band put up to release the double “London Calling” and the triple “Sandinista” at normal prices, Fugazi simply never gave in to large corporations, going on to sell quite a whole lot of records solely via independent labels and distributors.

Still, in the midst of a scene with so much admirable ideological statements, there lies a monolith of ambition by the name of “Zen Arcade”. If both punk and hardcore pushed against excesses, then “Zen Arcade” is an offender in two senses. Firstly, it clocks in at seventy minutes, a length that takes it closer to the flashy psychedelic extravaganzas of the 70s than to standard hardcore albums, which tended to barely make it to half an hour. Secondly, as if such indulgence were not enough, the record commits the sin of being a concept work centered on the life of a young man who runs away from a toxic home; a nature which ties it to opera-making dinosaurs of the previous decades like The Who, with their “Tommy” as well as “Quadrophenia”, and Pink Floyd, of “Animals” and “The Wall”.

However, rather than attracting pitchforks and torches, “Zen Arcade” ended up being widely celebrated, and for good reason. Theoretically, this is an album that could be disastrous. Besides being a statement, the briefness of hardcore works was also a wise choice born out of the understanding that, for a genre so stylistically tight, putting too much into one package was a recipe for dullness. Yet, Hüsker Dü was far from being a run-of-the-mill hardcore group. Sure, they played fast; they sang furiously; they had little technique; their recordings were of famous low quality, even after they went big; and Bob Mould wielded a guitar tone of blistering deafening nature, playing a buzzsaw guitar that had seemingly been drowned in acid. But, as they had lightly shown in the material they put out before “Zen Arcade”, Hüsker Dü did not mind throwing some pop sugar into the wild racket.

Much to the benefit of the album, and as the main reason why its seventy minutes are not excessive, this is where the band’s signature melodic work becomes established. Bringing twelve solo compositions to the table, Mould is responsible for the more muscular anthemic tracks, those that rock furiously and invite the audience to shout along as the choruses get to their hooks. Drummer Grant Hart, meanwhile, is the sensitive core of the band; penning six tunes on his own, his tracks are ballads often disguised in hardcore presentation, and if his highly emotional lyrics are not enough to drive his explosive feelings home, his screaming without a care for formality is sure to do so. It is much due to the distinct personalities of its creative leaders and thanks to their consistency in finding good melodies that “Zen Arcade” escapes whatever stones someone was looking to throw towards it; and the alliance of these qualities with its bold artistic ambitions propels it to a classic status.

The strong melodic work is not the only reason why “Zen Arcade” manages to find stylistic variety, since Hüsker Dü also happens to take some unexpected detours throughout the album. “Never Talking to You Again” is an acoustic number whose frantic strumming does not let listeners forget the band’s hardcore origins. “Dreams Recurring” is a vicious instrumental piece played backwards. “Hare Krsna” is noisy and certainly punk, but its repetitive chants nod to psychedelia whilst replicating some bad acid trip. “Standing by the Sea” has some loud-and-quite dynamics, with Hart seemingly screaming in the middle of a cacophonous storm when the track explodes. Both “One Step at a Time” and “Monday Will Never Be the Same” are short piano interludes. “The Tooth Fairy and the Princess” is another cut that is played backwards, with the distinction being that it carries a dreamy atmosphere due to whispered vocals and jangly guitars. And “Reoccurring Dreams” is a fourteen-minute instrumental jam that, like an opera, keeps returning to the same catchy central theme repeatedly when the band takes a break from making a beautiful racket.

Surprisingly, most of these weird turns work, with the annoying “Hare Krsna” possibly being the sole exception. The backwards instrumentals are thematically appropriate to replicate the character’s dreams. The short piano pieces offer nice breathing room between the guitar attacks. “Never Talking to You Again” is among the album’s best tracks. “Standing by the Sea” is an unlikely successful theatrical and dramatic moment. And “Reoccurring Dreams” is a musical achievement: a long instrumental piece that never feels tired or indulgent. That does not mean, however, “Zen Arcade” is not dented in the slightest by its length. Although it begins flawlessly with four strong opening tunes in a row and closes mightily in the seven-song sequence between “Pink Turns to Blue” and “Reoccurring Dreams”, its mid section can drag a bit, because the weakest melodic moments of the album are all joined in this segment, giving birth to the most common downfall of hardcore groups: making sequences of songs that are too hard to distinguish from one another.

Despite that irregular portion, “Zen Arcade” has highs that more than make up for such stumble. “Something I Learned Today”, “Broken Heart, Broken Home”, and “Chartered Trips” would go on to serve as fantastic blueprints for future Bob Mould classic compositions that are equal part muscle and melody. “What’s Going On” has enough energy to outdo an atomic bomb. “Turn on the News” has an irresistible call-and-response chorus that urges the protagonist to return in order to face real life. And “Pink Turns to Blue”, which depicts the moving sad desperation in the witnessing of an overdose may as well be the best song produced by any band of the hardcore movement; a scene that took the punk spirit to sometimes shocking extremes, and that happened to find its finest hour in an album that went against many of the rules that first brought it to existence. Ironically or appropriately, “Zen Arcade” is the ultimate hardcore classic.

five

The Woods

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Album: The Woods

Artist: Sleater-Kinney

Released: May 24th, 2005

Highlights: Jumpers, Modern Girl, Entertain, Rollercoaster

As they grew out of the underground punk rock scene where the band had gotten their start, a few notable elements began to emerge as defining characteristics of Sleater-Kinney’s sound. For starters, slowly but surely, Carrie Browstein and Corin Tucker developed an intertwining pattern of guitar-playing which on its apex, reached in “The Hot Rock” from 1999, recalled that of Television during the “Marquee Moon” era; with the caveat that though equally clean and clashing, the girl’s method was not as technically flashy and – making use of that trait – they used the style to build tracks with a greater pop rock inclination than the ones produced by the New York quartet. Furthermore, as they played their instruments almost like two independent leads, Browstein and Tucker also sang in dissonance, rarely harmonizing and often going for melodic lines that could have easily been used as the base of two different tracks.

It sure was a lot of content to unpack, especially when it came in short yet potent packages of three minutes, but by 2002 that recipe had yielded four albums of great music. And these records, besides being excellent, had allowed Sleater-Kinney to bring their work to an audience that was not there to hear the punk rock gems which were their self-titled debut and its sequel, “Call the Doctor”. However, following such run and maybe realizing that the recipe had gotten slightly tired, the band took a three-year break between new material (their longest one up to that point) and came back into view with a rather retooled musical outlook, producing – in the process – their most widely acclaimed album: “The Woods”.

The seventh studio release by the trio is so jarring that it takes a good while for one to notice that, deep down, there are remains of the old Sleater-Kinney sound under it. To a lesser degree, the band’s two guitarists still play disjointed parts that somehow gel; likewise, they frequently switch lead vocals and occasionally go their separate ways melodically. However, in “The Woods”, the lean punk rock the girls used to do is replaced with a towering powerful pounding of suffocating stature. Strength and ferocity were never absent elements in the Sleater-Kinney formula; they were always there, even if wrapped in the quirky catchy charm of records such as “Dig Me Out”. But here, it seems that the anger that had always driven the trio rose to the surface and gained a visible physical shape of mighty proportions.

Released during an era plagued by excessively loud recordings that caused much of the music to lose its audio fidelity, “The Woods” could be listed as yet another victim of that tendency. Not only does the album bang, but it does so at a volume so extreme that it creates a thick layer of distortion which permeates all pieces that compose it: Browstein and Tucker, drowned in what seems to be a symphony of static, have to either scream to be heard or resign themselves to the fact it is all too much; Janet Weiss, always a masterful tasteful drummer, is forced to hit her kit as if she were part of a heavy metal band that constantly plays in overdrive; and the guitars seem to come out of cheap amplifiers that cannot handle them, with much of their constitution being sheer feedback.

It could be disastrous, but “The Woods”, differently from its contemporaries that stumbled on poor mastering, actually uses loudness as a stylistic choice. While many albums of the era were clean-sounding records whose crispness was lost somewhere in translation, in the case of Sleater-Kinney’s 2005 release that characteristic is actually there by design. Sure, at some point when listening to it one has to wonder how the music would have sounded if “The Woods” took a more controlled approach in relation to volume. However, although it could be argued a few of the tracks would have been improved by a cleaner presentation, the album would likely not be as interesting and strong if that path had been chosen. Corin and her signature vibrato screams would not have to be so fierce; Carrie, always one quite talented in the art of sounding mad, would not take her craft to new heights; and Janet would lose out on a great opportunity to sound trashy and thunderous.

More serious, perhaps, would be how Sleater-Kinney would not be able to explore new perspectives on their songwriting. A track like “The Wolf”, for instance, which opens up the album, has a large plodding riff of a magnitude that is nowhere else to be found in their discography. “Steep Air” is so lo-fi and drowned in feedback that even its vocals are distorted beyond recognition, giving birth to a moment of such untamed noise that groups like The Velvet Underground and Pavement – which are quite familiar with soundscapes of the sort – would blush. And nearly all of the album’s tracks are eventually broken by moments of instrumental freak-out so dizzying that they could be compared to the live assaults of loudness famously carried out by “My Bloody Valentine”; an experiment that reaches its peak in audacity when the girls violently jam to extend “Let’s Call It Love” to the eleven-minute mark.

Contrarily to what its rough presentation may indicate, though, “The Woods” also carries moments when Sleater-Kinney strongly flirts with the mainstream, as if the knowledge they were going to work towards imploding these tunes via an aggressive aesthetic made them free to write for a wider audience. “Jumpers”, which came to life when Browstein read an article about the suicides that take place on the Golden Gate Bridge, has her and Corin harmonizing on the verses over slinky guitars until the tune bursts into a chorus that feels like a cry for help. “Entertain” is a catchy percussive march in which Browstein (sounding more furious than ever) rants against artistic staleness and cheap entertainment. Lastly, “Modern Girl” is a ballad – a rare sight in the Sleater-Kinney catalog – that might as well be the most beautiful and heartfelt song the trio has penned; with a mildly sarcastic tone, the cut wistfully narrates the mundane life of the titular character, and as it becomes increasingly evident that the beauty seen there is both fake and deceiving, the tune is slowly overrun by feedback.

Although in disguise, “The Woods” still presents a handful of tracks that have a more notable Sleater-Kinney signature, like “Wilderness”, “What’s Mine Is Yours”, “Rollercoaster”, and “Night Light”. In tunes such as these, the guitar interplay is more pronounced and instead of pounding mindlessly or flirting with accessibility, they carry speed and energetic bounciness that can easily be related to the previous era of the band; one where they escaped from the confines of underground punk to break past the riot grrrl movement in which they started. Regardless of the songwriting style it is approaching, however, “The Woods” is an album that simply erupts, turning the loudness that was so prevalent in the music around the time of its release into a weapon and giving a physical listenable manifestation to the sheer strength that had always been present in the work of Sleater-Kinney.

EVOL

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Album: EVOL

Artist: Sonic Youth

Released: May 1st, 1986

Highlights: Tom Violence, Shadow of a Doubt, Starpower, Expressway to Yr. Skull

There are, quite naturally, plenty of elements to be found in “EVOL” – Sonic Youth’s third album – that can be easily linked to pieces of the two full-length releases that preceded it: “Confusion Is Sex” and “Bad Moon Rising”. The guitars, whose sounds expand and hang in the air for a while like a thin mist, present a delicacy in their physical manifestation that heavily contrasts with the uncomfortable feelings their atonal essence gives life to. As a consequence, the instrumental backing of the album’s tracks becomes shapeless, mysterious, and looming; the kind of material that could be employed as the musical basis of a psychological thriller that takes place in an urban, dirty, and industrial dystopia. And on top of those pieces lie vocal performances that are bold in their cold sloppiness, using partial indifference as a pathway to artistic value.

Yet, despite those glaring similarities, if there is one turning point to be found in the career of a group that – through thirty years, fifteen studio albums, and numerous labels (both big and small) – remained true to their alternative roots, “EVOL” is certainly it. The work marks the departure of drummer Bob Bert and the arrival of his replacement, Steve Shelley, which would stay with the band until the end of their run. And although it is hard to say how much that new addition contributes to the leap that is taken, as “EVOL” seems to be the natural conclusion of an evolutionary arch that was already relatively visible in its two predecessors, the fact of the matter is that a lot of that transition goes through Shelley.

“Confusion Is Sex” and “Bad Moon Rising” were morbid, mean, and menacing like a film depicting horrifying madness that threatens to break through the screen and drag listeners into its downward spiral towards insanity. “EVOL” is not too different; but, in it, the noise of Sonic Youth gains notable muscle. Where in their first two albums the band was prone to getting lost amidst their unique craft, with the quartet going on to produce many songs that degenerated into aimless attempts at creating dark atmospheres through racket; in “EVOL” the group emerges as a more focused entity. Instead of drifting out dully into the ether, their more experimental hours are anchored to the ground; meanwhile, their ability to construct tracks whose structures have a more traditional lean – which do so without ever abandoning their noisy edge – is more explored.

“EVOL” is, as such, the moment when Sonic Youth realized that their relentless desire to challenge the limitations of guitar music should not bar them from looking at the possibilities that reside in the more straightforward pop approach. It is a record that proves to the band as well as to their followers that pushing for abrasive tones, aesthetically unpleasant tunings, and weird distortions are not mutually exclusive with embracing the power of good hooks; and, in that process, “EVOL” shows that the extremist and confrontational rejection of conventional rock and roll values captained by the no wave movement – in which Sonic Youth was born – could be tamed into an excellent middle ground.

The record opens with a triple punch that immediately announces Sonic Youth has changed for the better. “Tom Violence”, “Shadow of a Doubt”, and “Starpower” are not just the finest tunes the band had coined up to that point; they are also testaments to how Moore, Gordon, Ranaldo, and Shelley could embrace sheer catchiness without losing their personality. By far the poppiest points of the album, they are fully developed pieces that merge immediacy and experimentation. In “Tom Violence”, sandwiched between segments with beautiful ringing guitars and a fantastic melody, there is a gripping instrumental break that disintegrates before slowly springing back to life. The delicate whispers and picking of the dreamy “Shadow of a Doubt”, Kim Gordon’s signature song, are interrupted by a nightmarish slice of noise that has the singer screaming in the background as if trying to escape from perturbed sleep. Finally, “Starpower” catches a hold of its racket to alternate between occasions when it drives forward in punk rock fashion and instances when it becomes abstract.

At the same time, though, “EVOL” holds enough room for Sonic Youth to go purely experimental, and in those cases the band also displays notable growth; particularly in how they are – almost always – able to steer clear from pointless indulgence. Boasting spoken vocals that seem recklessly thrown over its fantastic backing track, “In the Kingdom #19” recreates a car crash. “Green Light” flirts with pop when it opens with Moore singing a hypnotizing melody, but quickly ventures into noise. “Death to Our Friends” is an angry and fast-paced instrumental. “Secret Girl” is half a weird intro filled with dull sounds and half a fantastic recitation of poetry by Kim Gordon, who does so over a simple but touching piano loop. And “Marilyn Moore”, the album’s sole misstep, has bored and irregular vocals by Moore, which match an equally uncertain instrumentation.

Appropriately, the catchy and the experimental sides of “EVOL” meet in perfect harmony to give birth to the record’s culmination: its closing track, “Expressway to Yr. Skull”. Clocking in at seven minutes, the song starkly opposes the rest of the album, which delivers its contents in relatively brief spans. “Expressway to Yr. Skull” uses a format, of which “The Diamond Sea” is likely the best and most extreme example, that Sonic Youth would go on to tackle multiple times during their career, as the tune grabs a melody many pop songwriters would have killed for, uses it for a small amount of time, and makes a sudden turn towards the land of lengthy musical freak-outs, essentially pushing the formula of “EVOL” to its utmost limits before the record slowly decomposes and comes to a close.

Although a surprisingly strong effort by a band that, slightly more than one year earlier, was clearly looking for solid footing, “EVOL” ranks among Sonic Youth’s best efforts without quite making a serious run for the top spot. Almost entirely free of instrumental frivolity, it still falters in lyrics and vocals, two areas which – for many – the band would never exactly nail, but that would nevertheless see clear evolution in the following years. Yet, as the muscular backbone of their tracks would start gaining notable strength with the follow-up, “Sister”, and as the substance in the band’s songwriting would also increase, “EVOL” is a unique middle ground between Sonic Youth’s purely atmospheric beginnings and the rest of their career, which would be more firmly grounded on the alternative scene. And, in that sense, it is a key – and thoroughly enjoyable – moment in the history of all kinds of rock that see noise as an integral part of their constitution.

White Light/White Heat

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Album: White Light/White Heat

Artist: The Velvet Underground

Released: January 30th, 1968

Highlights: White Light/White Heat, Here She Comes Now, I Heard Her Call My Name, Sister Ray

Given its indisputable status as one of the greatest albums of all time, it is hard to say there is one particular variable that made “The Velvet Underground & Nico” be so remarkable. Yet, much of its irresistible, dangerous, dark, and subversive aura stemmed from the balance of forces that existed within the group; more specifically, the one that consisted of the dirty street-smart rock and roll power of Lou Reed, and the avant-garde spirit of John Cale. Although much of the writing was done by the former, which kept the songs firmly grounded on the format and hooks expected out of pop music, the latter’s desire to experiment with sounds, arrangements, and multiple sorts of atmospheric elements was passed onto the band members themselves, including Reed, and – consequently – leaked into the fabric of the tracks that were cut.

It was a harmony so perfectly adjusted that in the spectrum that denotes the gap between pure rock and roll energy and inscrutable artistic delusion, “The Velvet Underground & Nico” stood precisely in the middle of that range; achieving a hard-to-match stability that allowed its most significant tunes, like the plodding menace of “Venus in Furs”, to be fierce but mysterious; violent but elegant. As the second, and final, album recorded while Cale was in the band, “White Light/White Heat” exhibits that very same battle between opposing forces; however, in its case, the result of the struggle is clearly askew, because the musical chaos it contains could not possibly be the product of a finely tuned and perfectly stabilized balance.

It is, though, not the case where one side has obviously come out on top. As such, claiming “White Light/White Heat” was birthed by the submission of rock to avant-garde aspirations is somewhat off. The album exists as it is because the chemical reaction between guitar music and weird noise, which was quite well-managed in “The Velvet Underground & Nico”, has suddenly gone out of control. And in the wake of the explosion caused by the accident, the creature that was once capable of restraint has been transformed into a berserk entity that lives in loudness, thrives in destruction, and indulges in disturbing forms of sentimental expression.

“White Light/White Heat” is not rock brutally murdered by rabid art: it is music corrupted by insanity; it is sound affected by odd creative whims. Because, when it is all said and done, amidst the overwhelming noise, the unstoppable desire to wreck, and the relentless attempts at reaching for all that is ugly, the album rarely loses its ability to please, be it by unearthing the occasional beautiful melody, landing on the always desired musical hooks, and bringing forth those grand moments of release. There is method to the madness of “White Light/White Heat”, and that gives a purpose to the sonic assault it presents through most of its duration other than producing shock and confronting audiences, as it is also able to entertain almost thoroughly.

Its opening track, which lends its name to the album, is surf rock on amphetamines not just because its lyrics deal with the effects of the drug, but also thanks to how its music might as well have been made while the band was high on them. Propelled by a pounding piano, it has a call-and-response structure that includes harmonies that nod to The Beach Boys, only the neat California lads were hallucinating so much they mistook a dirty bathroom for a clean studio and failed to keep it all together for too long, as the whole performance deteriorates into mindless banging as it reaches the two-minute mark.

The pair of “Here She Comes Now” and “I Heard Her Call My Name”, meanwhile, stand on opposite sides of the aesthetic scale. Although the band sounds absolutely aloof through it, the first is a beautiful and melodic interlude whose ambiguous lyrics, which leave the door open for one to question whether Lou is talking about his guitar or a woman, are at the same time underlined by gentle instrumental work by both Reed and Morrison as well as, in true avant-garde fashion, partially demolished by a repetitive pattern that goes nowhere. Contrarily, the second, which also bets on a circular format, is ugly, visceral, energetic, and delightfully grating. In it, Morrison, Cale, and Tucker stay locked into a demented pulse; simultaneously, Reed’s guitar – mixed as loudly as possible – spirals away madly, spitting venom into the ears of listeners, who are greeted by one of rock’s most wicked solos while the singer rants as if possessed and the rest of the group occasionally repeats the song’s title.

And then there is “Sister Ray”. Relating a story that involves transvestites, an orgy, as well as a heroin deal that goes wrong and ends up in murder, it is a seventeen-minute jam put to tape in one take that begins with a simple guitar riff and slowly mutates into a monstrous cacophony. As legend tells it, the session’s recording engineer refused to sit around and listen to what the band was about to perform, choosing instead to simply press the button and walk out. Exaggerated tale or not, “Sister Ray” puts together quite a case for it being true, for it speeds up and slows down wildly and features all four members of the band competing to be the one playing the loudest instrument in the room, as Reed vies for that spot with blistering guitar solos but is ultimately outdone by Cale, who causes an absolutely glorious racket with an organ whose volume would probably get him arrested for attempted manslaughter in any civilized country.

Even though often thrilling to the greatest degree, the wildness of “White Light/White Heat” does not always click, as it generates a couple of lesser moments. “The Gift” is an eight-minute spoken-word track with vocals and instruments mixed to separate channels that, despite featuring a fantastic jam, gets boring after one has listened to its disturbing tale once; and “Lady Godiva’s Operation” is just interesting, with a lot of that value emerging thanks to how its music and sound effects work together to bring to life the messed up lobotomy of a transsexual woman. But given how much of an effort the record puts towards pushing the lines of what is musically and thematically acceptable, missteps are nothing but utterly natural. After all, the process of challenging norms and breaking rules is bound to give one a few bruises; these, however, turn out to be more than worthy if the subversiveness yields a few good results. And in the case of “White Light/White Heat”, The Velvet Underground sure uncover some precious music that would not have been found out if nobody was willing to take the mad leap.

Extraordinary Machine

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Album: Extraordinary Machine

Artist: Fiona Apple

Released: October 3rd, 2005

Highlights: Extraordinary Machine, Get Him Back, O’ Sailor, Oh Well, Please Please Please

The third entry in the small, yet remarkable, discography of Fiona Apple is especially notable for two reasons. The first is, of course, related to the confusion that surrounded its release. Going through a grueling breakup, producer and friend Jon Brion met an idle Fiona for lunch and begged her to save him by going into a studio, writing some songs, and giving him some work. The singer-songwriter complied, and the two, during a long period of time, labored over what would be the first version of “Extraordinary Machine”. The material produced in those sessions, however, would never officially see the light of day, as the record company judged it to lack any sort of commercial quality.

What followed was chaos, as tracks produced by Brion began to leak to the press, fans organized protests outside of the label’s headquarters asking for the album to be released, and Fiona rushed back to the studio with a new team of producers to rebuild the record from scratch, later attributing that decision to how the lack of an incubation period for the tunes before they were taken into the Brion-led sessions made her unsure of the direction in which she would lead the songs. After all that glorious mess, and an extra bunch of months in the studio, “Extraordinary Machine” would finally make it to the public more than three years after the lunch that originated it, but in clothes quite different from the ones it was going to wear at first.

Much like Fiona herself, the Brion album was charming and quirky, with its strong piano-based tracks being backed by tasteful, yet wacky and overpowering, string arrangements. Contrarily, the output of the sessions guided by Mike Elizondo and Brian Kehew is more pasteurized, fitting in more nicely not just alongside contemporary music as a whole, but also with the two albums Fiona had put out before it. Despite its more straightforward approach, though, the officially released version of “Extraordinary Machine” is bursting with personality, not only because – as a Fiona Apple record ought to be – it carries the emotional hurricane that lies within the body of a clumsy transgressor, but also due to how it captures that outcast soul at a very transformed state.

And that is where one will find the second defining trait of “Extraordinary Machine”: the fact that Fiona is still an introspective, confused, somewhat miserable, and lovely weirdo, but that she has learned how to get a major kick out of the situation. The album still has plenty of room for mad and intense Fiona, as she breaks windows that might metaphorically represent love, threatens to kill an ex-lover, and pens a couple of tunes that are unmistakably sad. Most of the time, however, what she is doing is actually having a quiet ironic laugh at the crap life throws at her while letting her friends know that she is doing just fine, it is just that her mind operates on a unique wavelength that makes her a bit hard to grasp.

The title track and opening number, one of the two songs that appear just as they were recorded by Jon Brion, is already a universal declaration of sorts. The “Extraordinary Machine” is none other than Fiona herself, as over plucked strings and occasional horns that bring about a vaudeville vibe, she announces both her oddness and her resiliency. Still, it is no wonder her friends are terribly preoccupied, as over the course of the album she seems to – in lyrics that are too personal to be fictional – completely clear the checklist of possible relationship troubles. There is the ex-boyfriend that is hard to forget and the men that she goes through in her failed attempts to find someone that moves her the way he did (“Get Him Back”); there is unrequited love (“Parting Gift”); there is cheating (“Oh Well”); there are abusive (“Not About Love”) and non-functional (“O’ Sailor”) relationships whose true natures are only revealed in hindsight; and there is a myriad of insecurities regarding the truth behind expressed feelings.

Emotionally, “Extraordinary Machine” is nothing but devastating. It is unlikely, for instance, that the fantastic love-related metaphors Fiona pulls off during “Red Red Red” or the frustration expressed in “Oh Well” will fail to make a brokenhearted individual cry. Likewise, the piano-and-voice rawness of the performance captured in “Parting Gift” shows a human being at a rather broken state. It is, therefore, quite a miracle that, overall, the tone carried by the record is one of brave defiance and humorous self-awareness. When Fiona is not standing proud and tall amidst her tears, she is poking fun at her misery with marvelous insight, and – in the two cases – what supports her seems to be the understanding, acceptance, and pride she has of her uniqueness, for, as she states in the lines that close the album, “Everyone else’s goal’s to get big-headed / Why should I follow that beat being that / I’m better than fine”.

As much as the Brion version of the record is undeniably more interesting and creative from an artistic standpoint, the Mike Elizondo and Brian Kehew production suits the material perfectly. With her piano and voice always firmly holding the spotlight, Fiona’s gifts are well-supported by clever instrumentation and varied arrangements. In the moments she is focused on sadness, the drums, keyboards, guitars, strings, and horns that accompany her powerfully rise to let her stand afloat; meanwhile, in the moments she aims to laugh while looking at the mirror, the music gets quirky and wild, as it does in the vibraphones used in “Tymps (The Sick in the Head Song)”, in the noisy undercurrent of “A Better Version of Me”, in the colorful energetic groove of “Please Please Please”, or in the frantic break of “Not About Love”, when Fiona spits words out like a machine gun and the band goes bonkers.

These alternations between the Fiona who is sullen as well as angry and the Fiona who is basking under the light of her weirdness are certainly an important part of the high degree of quality found in “Extraordinary Machine”. However, those features would not hold much weight if the album lacked in songwriting, and it is in that department in which it shines the most, as – once again – the singer displays, besides notable consistency, an impressive ability for being creative in lyrics and melody without losing the firm grip she has on the traits that make a track be simultaneously likable, accessible, and odd. It is an intersection inside which Fiona has existed from the get go, and in “Extraordinary Machine” it is thoroughly explored once more; as bonus, though, it comes – this time around – with a better, renewed, and more confident understanding of herself as a person, and both her lyrics and the tone of her songwriting gain quite a bit from that development.

Captain Fantastic And the Brown Dirt Cowboy

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Album: Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy

Artist: Elton John

Released: May 19th, 1975

Highlights: Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, Tower of Babel, Someone Saved My Life Tonight, We All Fall in Love Sometimes

Extravagance has, for the longest time, been an adjective that is closely related to Elton John. From the glasses to the outfits; from the life of luxury to the massive vices; from the wild on-stage persona to the charming yet difficult off-stage personality; from the exuberant pop craft to the abundant musical inconsistencies; the journey of the singer-songwriter has been one of intense extremes, with little room being left in his lore for moments of calculation or control. And along that road of excess, the first of the two albums he would release in 1975, “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy”, represents perhaps the peak of all the absurdity.

Surely, with its eleven tracks and forty-six minutes of length, the album looks rather humble when put beside the sprawling magnificence of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”, which – released two years before – featured seventeen tracks and almost reached for the eighty-minute mark. However, “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy” is not outrageous in sheer size; its utter lack of restraint actually comes to the forefront in the nature of its content. In it, both Elton John and Bernie Taupin, his lyricist, choose to build an autobiographical record that, rather than telling their story in straightforward terms, dresses them up – respectively – as the titular pair of heroic characters, making the work qualify as a huge exercise in constructing one’s own personal mythology.

If that sounds like exaggerated self-importance, that’s because it certainly is, especially when one considers that, by 1975, Elton John was merely six years into his career. And if there ever is a point when it is acceptable for artists to pay homages to themselves, it absolutely does not come so soon in their trajectory. Yet, for John and Taupin, the ego trip just works. Partially, it clicks because, given his track record, it seems to be just the kind of ridiculous attitude the singer would have, and his ability to pull the preposterous off with a tongue in his cheek just makes the acrobatics endearing instead of objectionable. But, more flagrantly, it succeeds because, following a quick succession of seven great albums packed with gems and only one dud of a record, the quickly put together “Caribou”, it is simply impossible to say the pair were not entitled to toot their own horn in public, for they were in the midst of one of the greatest creative runs in rock and roll history.

With that being said, “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy” is not the best Elton John album. It does not have the cohesiveness and rich musical heritage of “Tumbleweed Connection”; it lacks the immediacy of “Honky Château”; and it fails to match the variety and quality peaks that lie within “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”. Furthermore, its excessively sleek production not only reveals shades of the middle-of-the-road pop rut John would be locked in for many of the years that would follow the record’s release, but it also somewhat erodes that hectic, unpredictable, wild, loud, and rough nature that can be found in the best cuts of the classic era of his career. Nevertheless, when it comes to sheer consistency, “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy” stands firmly next to the finest works the singer has produced.

The title track, which opens the album, starts with a gorgeous country segment worthy of the greatest moments of “Tumbleweed Connection” before turning, during its second part, into a very good rocker. And it is in the first half of that tune that the key to the album lies, because in it the junction of the delicate acoustic guitar strings and John’s moving singing makes the narration of the meeting between the city-slick Captain Fantastic and the country-raised Brown Dirt Cowboy be both humbling and touching, as it depicts – with absurd honesty – the uphill battles the pair faced before they found each other as well as in the beginning of their shared career. The empathy created by those brief, but magnificent, two minutes is essential, not just for how it dispels any potential aversions to a self-homage, but also because struggle is, in fact, the subject around which the entirety of “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy” seems to be built, as – one way or another – nearly all of its songs touch on that matter.

With listeners firmly attached to the two central characters and, therefore, interested in the fights they have to win, the album departs on an engaging musical and thematic journey that does not embellish fame, choosing – on the contrary – to mostly tackle the brutal elements that come with it, especially as it centers on the years when Elton and Bernie were still trying to make it big. There are nods to substance abuse; references to the schemes and politics of the entertainment industry; notes on the grueling challenges young artists need to face, as they are explored by publishers and forced to relentlessly tour small venues to earn enough money to buy a meal; takes on the personal and emotional troubles that come with such high demands; and, on a brighter side, sweet homages to the beauty of shared artistic creation, which, in the end, is what keeps the ship afloat.

Musically, “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy” is mostly formed by tunes that lean towards slow tempos and bittersweet tones, as both John and producer Gus Dudgeon go for an accessible brand of soft piano rock with plenty of keyboards, extremely clean guitars, and a nose for moving songwriting. There are, obviously, tinges of other stylistic influences that had – before that point – been part of the singer’s repertoire, like the country-flavored spectrum of American roots music and a flashy glam approach that merges the rock and roll silliness of Marc Bolan with the flamboyant well-produced characterizations of David Bowie. But, despite those forces and a handful of moments when the record either threatens to take off, as in the frantic chorus of “Bitter Fingers”, or rocks out shamelessly, as it does in “(Gotta Get a) Meal Ticket”, “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy” feels like a large collection of tracks that flirt with balladry.

To some, that may lead the record to be an excessively sterilized version of Elton John, but the most likely outcome is that it will actually be perceived as one of his greatest moments. The melodies are invariably excellent, even if they are not, for the most part, as immediate as those carried by John’s most famous hits; and allied with the candidness of Taupin’s lyrics, the general sweetness that permeates them, and the fragility that is displayed throughout its running time, “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy” is successful in being not only a wonderful listen, but also in transforming what could otherwise be a concept that reeks of indulgence and self-importance into a likable look at the wildness of the pursuit and attainment of fame.

All Mod Cons

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Album: All Mod Cons

Artist: The Jam

Released: November 3rd, 1978

Highlights: To Be Someone (Didn’t We Have a Nice Time), Mr. Clean, ‘A’ Bomb in Wardour Street, Down in the Tube Station at Midnight

No other band had as much of an influence over the mod revival movement that took place in the United Kingdom during the late 70s as The Jam did. And, of course, no revival of note could happen without the execution of some sort of alteration on the subculture that is being brought back to life. For the group formed by Paul Weller, Bruce Foxton, and Rick Buckler, the extra ingredient they employed in the reanimation of the comatose mod genre was none other than punk. The original mods – namely, The Who and the Small Faces – had built their tunes on what the 50s and 60s had brought forth in terms of R&B, pop, and soul.

Comparatively, with one extra decade of musical history behind them, The Jam had the opportunity to drink from those same sources while giving them an energetic and rough edge that English punk rockers had proven to be a viable commercial alternative. As such, with their feet firmly set on two major musical currents from two distinct eras, Weller and his peers crafted a sound that had the shambolic honesty of The Clash’s early phase and simultaneously boasted a killer instinct that allowed it to bite on major pop hooks as soon as they hit the water.

Punk with pop affectations was by no means new, as both the Ramones and The Clash had – each to a degree – dabbled in that realm. However, it was the mod inspiration that set The Jam apart. Their aggression, though certainly powerful, landed with sweet notes thanks to their melodic inclinations, cleaner production values, and a instrumentation that knew how to kick and punch as well as it knew how to create mellower moments; and much of their career was spent traversing a bridge that led them further away from punk and progressively closer to pop.

As the third piece of a six-album arc, “All Mod Cons” stands numerically towards the middle of that journey; however, in many ways, it feels like its true beginning. “In the City” and “This Is the Modern World” were solid records with a lot to say musically and lyrically; yet, in between them, little to no evolution is perceived, as in both the band appears not to be confident enough to truly merge the movements that had influenced them. In “All Mod Cons”, contrarily, the gear unmistakably shifts, as Paul Weller merges anger and sweetness to build a record of power pop that carries a pocket knife under its immaculate clothing, being as prepared to charm as it is to attack.

In “All Mod Cons” The Jam does not completely abandon punk: the opening title song clocks in at under eighty seconds and shows Paul Weller complaining about the fact their label will surely drop them if they fail to deliver a hit this time around; “Billy Hunt” is so fast-paced it can make one’s head spin; and “’A’ Bomb in Wardour Street”, which looks at how cultural degradation and the disintegration of freedom walk hand in hand, has as its main hook a simple catchy riff that would have been right at home in The Clash’s debut record.

However, signs that the pop vein is finally standing in equal footing alongside the band’s aggressive tendencies abound. “English Rose” is a sweet, yet perhaps a bit too flat, folk ballad whose lyrics are smart enough to make one wonder whether Weller is writing a love letter to his home country or to a girl; “Fly” also ventures into balladry, but gains energy in how the acoustic picking of its verses makes way for an electric chorus; “It’s Too Bad” is so poppy it could have been on an early The Beatles LP if not for the bitterness of its words; and “To Be Someone (Didn’t We Have a Nice Time)” and “Down in the Tube Station at Midnight” are masterpieces of dynamics. The former matches moments when Weller, over gentle guitar-playing, looks smitten by the delights of fame only to eventually break down into explosions of frustration when the condemns the emptiness of it all; and the latter, one of the best tunes of the era, grows ever more pulsating and paranoid as it travels through its five-minute length, going silent when the protagonist reveals his fear of being beat down by thugs hanging around the station and speeding up when he is in fact struck into unconsciousness.

“All Mod Cons” is filled with those moments of power pop delight: they come in how The Jam mixes fierce riffs with ringing arpeggios that recall the work of Elvis Costello in “My Aim is True”; in how the record’s melodies are strong and smooth in equal parts; and in how the band targets accessibility without compromising candidness. It is not all about aesthetic beauty, though, as Weller infuses brains into his songwriting as well. Social and political matters still are of great importance to the singer, but here, inspired by Ray Davies, as the inclusion of a frantic take on The Kink’s “David Watts” indicates, he goes all out on character studies, whether it is the middle-class smugness of the protagonist of “Mr. Clean”, which makes Weller so mad he resorts to threatening the man’s integrity; the loss of individuality perceived by the narrator of “In the Crowd”; and the miserable members of English society that lead such dull lives that the only relief they find is in their imagination, as seen in both “Billy Hunt” and “The Place I Love”.

More than providing social insight through music, the acidity generated by themes such as those solidify The Jam’s position as a band that had the political concerns of their biggest punk influence, The Clash, but approached them via a very different pair of lenses while carrying these ideas to a poppier spectrum. It is a blend that allowed the group to stay in perfect consonance with the two cultural phenomenons they drank from in order to build their sound, and “All Mod Cons” marks the moment when these branches were truly merged into a full-fledged musical concept.

Tusk

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Album: Tusk

Artist: Fleetwood Mac

Released: October 12th, 1979

Highlights: The Ledge, What Makes You Think You’re the One, Storms, Beautiful Child, Tusk, Never Forget

Inside the confines of Fleetwood Mac’s most popular period, “Tusk” is often regarded as the weird one. There is, of course, some truth to that evaluation. After all, guitarist Lindsey Buckingham was reportedly so bent on avoiding repeating the formula of the stunningly successful “Rumours” that he drove himself to the line that separates absurd stress from sheer madness. At the same time, though, there is also a good degree of familiarity to be found in the record.

It is not that “Tusk” comes off as a natural evolution of the sound of its predecessor while also being able to feel like a natural and bold evolution. That would be a way too common path to be followed by an album filled with so much weirdness and that is the product of a band with as much internal turmoil as commercial recognition. “Tusk” is, instead, able to include the unpredictable and the expected because, stylistically, it is absolutely all over the place. Miraculously, the two albums that came before it had – despite the fact they had been written by three songwriters that worked fairly independently – achieved a level of uniformity, as if they had been created with a singular vision in mind. In “Tusk”, however, the magical glue that had been tightly uniting a bunch of wild and creative pieces that did it their own way starts coming loose.

Given their usual status as physical representations of a grand and homogeneous artistic target, most albums would rightfully be panned for such inconsistency. Nonetheless, “Tusk” dodges those bullets because besides being chaotic, it is also very lengthy. Long records have historically benefited from variety, because homogeneity becomes a problem when one has to dive into a piece that lasts for more than one hour, and “Tusk” – with its twenty tracks and seventy-four minutes – is not different. With so many tracks to fill, and with three composers that were either peaking or going through a period of remarkable quality, the album allows them to run loose with their pen.

Christine McVie, Lindsey Buckingham, and Stevie Nicks each turn in five songs or more. And although these tunes do not come together as neatly as the tracks the trio had created for “Fleetwood Mac” and “Rumours”, as “Tusk” often appears to be three solo efforts that have been joined under the same umbrella, it is hard to find fault on what they deliver. The common ground that unites the compositions is the production and arrangements, which are far sparser than those of the records that preceded “Tusk”; everything else, though, from lyrical content to genres covered, works towards separating them.

Stevie, who shines as the member of the band that delivers the best collection of tracks, brings in five character studies that range from personal (“Storms”) to fictional (“Sisters of the Moon”). She channels the mysterious and exotic vein she had uncovered in the classic “Rhiannon” and finds uncanny variety in it. Surely, all of her songs are delicate ballads grounded on pop; but the instrumentation they gain and, especially, their utterly jaw-dropping melodies give each a particular beauty of their own.

Christine, like Stevie, is also responsible for the part of the record that feels familiar, for the styles she tackles are not too distinct from what she had been presenting ever since she joined the group. Hers are the simple and catchy pop rock numbers that are easy to dance to while singing along (“Think About Me”, “Honey Hi”, and “Never Forget”) and the introspective efforts that rank as the album’s most fragile moments (“Over & Over”, and “Never Make Me Cry”). She does, however, find some room for experimentation in “Brown Eyes”, which even if not entirely successful, represents a pleasant addition to her songwriting palette due to its relaxed vibe that merges blues and loose jamming.

With those pieces in place, it becomes clear that the madness that is frequently used to define “Tusk” comes from the member that was extremely worried about repeating himself: Buckingham. His shot at keeping the group relevant through the explosion of post-punk and the upcoming turn of the decade yields complete wildness. With nine tunes, he dominates the album, and much of its incongruity derives from how his pieces clash with those by Stevie and Christine. Partially mad, positively angry, and with no regard whatsoever for pop conventions, his creative output in “Tusk” is noisy, as the drums of Mick clang like cans and the bass of John has some of fuzz to it; and strident, because Lindsey’s voice – as well as those of the backing vocalists – is in an odd place between singing, talking, and screaming. Furthermore, while some of his songs come off as unfinished, as if written in an explosion of insanity; others bang on the same melodic hook repeatedly.

They are weird; they are heavily inspired by the bouncy awkwardness of the Talking Heads, especially on the frantic rhythmic party of the title track; and they are also completely brilliant, as they are unique not only in the Fleetwood Mac canon, but in rock music as well. And they make “Tusk” not only one of the brightest and most special albums of the decade, but a bold move towards the unusual by a band that could have easily kept on shaking the money-making tree they had found with “Rumours”. Certainly, in a way, both Stevie and Christine do not go far from that source of success, but they provide the safe and usually excellent support for Buckingham to go absolutely nuts, a fact that turns “Tusk” into what is perhaps the most individualistic group effort ever created.

Fleetwood Mac

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Album: Fleetwood Mac

Artist: Fleetwood Mac

Released: July 11th, 1975

Highlights: Rhiannon, Over My Head, Crystal, Landslide

The tenth effort by Fleetwood Mac is not their first ever record to be self-titled, as the band’s name had already been used as the moniker of their debut. Nevertheless, the re-utilization of the title feels appropriate for two reasons. Firstly and most obviously, because the album, by all means, qualifies as a brand new start, for the arrival of two singer-songwriters – vocalist Stevie Nicks and guitarist Lindsey Buckingham – significantly altered the group’s configuration. Secondly, because in spite of that considerable change, “Fleetwood Mac” sounds like a culmination of what the band had been producing ever since the beginning of the decade.

Following the departure of founder and initial bandleader Peter Green, Fleetwood Mac had – through a myriad of lineups – slowly abandoned the blues of their first records in favor of a soft and accessible brand of pop rock, and after a series of ups and downs, the 1975 release comes off as the conclusion of that cycle; a point where the quintet, with its two added pieces, put together a work of incredible consistency.

As far as writing goes, “Fleetwood Mac” features nearly no collaborations whatsoever between the three creative minds of the band, newcomers Nicks and Buckingham plus veteran Christine McVie, who was responsible for a big slice of the group’s output after the Peter Green days. The only joint composition, crafted by the last two, is “World Turning”, the moment when the album comes the closest to rocking out. Yet, despite such isolation in creation, it is stunning how pieces that emerge from different sources gel so finely.

Part of the credit for that achievement, of course, falls on the shoulders of the production. Done by members of the band themselves and Keith Olsen, who had already worked with Nicks and Buckingham on their debut as a duo, it generates a clean and palatable sound that winds up directing the spotlight towards both the tunes’ melodies, which are uniformly remarkable, and the tasteful instrumentation, which is particularly notable in Christine’s keyboards and Buckingham’s guitar playing, and the two come together to form soft and energetic arrangements that bring the best out of all tracks.

In fact, “Fleetwood Mac” sounds so spotless its cleanliness may leave cold those who like their pop rock to have some roughness to it; and the framework it set up in instrumentation, melodic lines, and production was so successful that its insistent repetition throughout the years by inferior imitators may cause some modern ears to perceive it as tame or safe. However, even if the feeling of over-calculation is valid to a certain point, the album shines.

Stevie Nicks, in particular, turns in awe-inspiring gems: hers are “Rhiannon”, whose music is as sexy and dark as the female character it talks about, as well as the introspective pair of “Crystal” and “Landslide”, and the three – though strong enough on their own – are beautifully augmented by the band, with the first gaining some passionate sensual guitar solos by Buckingham, the second shining in the way he and Stevie harmonize while standing on Christine’s keyboards, and the third starring some impeccable acoustic picking. Buckingham, meanwhile, delivers the record’s most unique – for the band’s standards – songs, the unusually energetic “Monday Morning” and the atmospheric closer “I’m So Afraid”; as Christine perfects the line of danceable pop rock she had been exploring for some time in “Over My Head”, “Say You Love Me”, and “Sugar Daddy”.

Although its successor, the rightfully revered “Rumours”, is overall better and qualifies as the perfect record of pop rock in the 70s, “Fleetwood Mac” is no slouch. The former could not have possibly happened without the latter, as much of its strength comes out of the confidence gained from the fact “Fleetwood Mac” showed the added parts not only fused with the existing group quite finely, but also perfectly balanced the new elements they brought to the table with what was already established. It is a work with no weak links, and that is enjoyable in its entirety.

Furthermore, it marked the point when the band went from being a group that could have easily been drowned by the sands of time and the excellent musical quality of the period, to a juggernaut that is still being discovered and listened to many decades after its peak period. It is the emergence of a new Fleetwood Mac, and it is thanks to this formation that the name would go down in musical history and be celebrated as a synonym for flawless pop rock.

Os Mutantes

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Album: Os Mutantes

Artist: Os Mutantes

Released: June 1st, 1968

Highlights: Panis et Circenses, A Minha Menina, Baby, Bat Macumba

In 1922, a one-week event in São Paulo’s municipal theater gathered Brazilian artists from different parts of the country with the goal of launching the nation’s culture towards Modernism. Out of the many artistic lines of thought exposed during those seven days, one in particular is highly important for the understanding of “Os Mutantes”, a psychedelic rock album that would emerge from the same country and city more than four decades later. And that is because poet Mario de Andrade, seeking to establish a local artistic expression that would simultaneously be distinctively Brazilian but also ready for global exportation, inadvertently set in stone the foundation behind the record when he presented what he would dub the Anthropophagic Movement.

According to Andrade, Brazilian artists were not meant to ignore the cultural production of prominent regions such as Europe and the United States; they were actually meant to eat and digest those influences throughly. However, as they did so, in order to preserve the Brazilian character of their own output, they also had to swallow the culture of the groups that had been an integral part of Brazil’s formation; namely, the Portuguese, the indigenous peoples that had ruled the land before the arrival of European colonizers, and the Africans that had mostly stepped into the country as slaves. And it was through the ingestion of these external and internal currents that local artists would be able to spit out works of worldwide relevance with a unique Brazilian twist.

“Os Mutantes” fits into that context because, either purposely or unconsciously, Rita Lee, Arnaldo Baptista, and Sérgio Dias followed that exact recipe in the building of their very quirky psychedelic trip. From outside Brazil, they feed on the dark wackiness of Pink Floyd’s “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” and eat the colorful instrumentation, pop sensibilities, and acid-fueled circus vibe of The Rolling Stones’ “Their Satanic Majesties Request” and, especially, The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, all released in the previous year. Meanwhile, from within their South American borders, their nourishment comes from the musicians involved in the Tropicália movement, such as Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, and Jorge Ben Jor.

It is a cultural tug of war, one that sometimes gets more strongly pulled towards one of its extremes, as it happens in the vaudevillian “Senhor F” and in the excellent foreign pop covers of “Le Premier Bonheur du Jour” and “Once Was a Time I Thought”. In the end, though, it remains thoroughly balanced through most of the album’s running time, creating a brand of psychedelic rock that albeit being one year late to the drug-influenced party of 1967 still arrives timely enough to have an impact. More importantly, even if by its release psychedelic rock had already been tackled quite extensively by both its creators and those who jumped aboard the train after it left the station, the special mixture behind “Os Mutantes” guarantees the originality of its content.

What is found here cannot be had anywhere else, because it could only have been produced by a Brazilian band mutually aware of the relevant musical exploits happening in its country and of the British and American fads that dominated rock music at the time. “Os Mutantes” is, therefore, either Tropicália on acid or tropicalist psychedelic rock and most of its eleven tracks are bent on joining these two sides. In “A Minha Menina”, written by Jorge Ben Jor, the trio takes a samba tune, keeps its signature percussive elements, but drowns everything in studio trickery and a wicked fuzzy guitar. In “Adeus Maria Fulô”, they dabble into baião (a popular rhythm from Brazil’s northeast), and although the instrumentation of the tune is sober and closer to what is traditional, the production makes it sound loose and trippy.

In “Bat Macumba”, one of the two songs in the record composed by Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, where a single verse is humorously repeated over and over again first by removing a syllable at each passage and then by adding them back one by one until the verse is complete once more, they dive into the rhythms of African-Brazilian religions with an added Beatlesque beat. And in both “Panis et Circenses” and “Baby” the band does Tropicália drenched in odd effects and unpredictable arrangements.

“Os Mutantes” is not, however, an uniform bliss of accessible psychedelia, pop, and Tropicália, for it does contain a trio of moments when the band veers into wilder territory. Not coincidentally, those tend to come up when the band itself is left on their own to come up with material, and the irregular quality of these tracks reveals not only an inclination by Arnaldo and Sérgio to be highly experimental (a nature that would emerge further down the line) but also that the trio had yet to mature into solid songwriters. “O Relógio”, despite its interesting dynamics, lacks melodically; “Trem Fantasma”, where the group cleverly harmonizes in a way that imitates the whistle of a train, has nice instrumentation but an absence of notable hooks; and closer “Ave Gengis Khan” feels a whole lot like filler.

These tracks stop “Os Mutantes” from being the masterpiece its stylistic originality signals it could have turned out to be. Still, these songs are not entirely problematic, as they do carry some redeeming features. Furthermore, they also add to the general strangeness of the record. And like so, they indicate that the cultural anthropophagy idealized by Mario de Andrade in 1922 and executed by Os Mutantes in the gestation period of the album generated a very Brazilian acid trip with exquisite moments of brilliancy and a couple of occasions when the chemicals get in the way.