As recorded histories go, there are few musical repertoires richer than that of 1970s’ Brazil. In the midst of political unrest and fighting for true national identity, it was art and pop culture that drove the revolution and blossomed in the midst of struggle. Brighter and more bombastic artists have stood the test of time, their names remaining in the minds of music lovers worldwide and throughout the decades, and deservedly so. For most, José Mauro is not one of those names, but thanks to Far Out’s re-release of his long-buried 1970 record Obnoxius, he has another chance to imprint on the collective cultural psyche, and deservedly so.
Obnoxius is a word with many meanings in Latin, the most pertinent of which, in this case, is “vulnerable”. It’s an etymology that lends itself particularly well to Mauro’s style, which eschews tropical colors to follow in the footsteps of Nick Drake in lacing melancholy folk with Baroque pop and psychedelic smoke. Mauro’s music is introspective and experimental; in spite of his prowess for familiar samba structure, he has no interest in staying inside that box. Off-key trumpet notes ring out at the very start of the record, and atonal violins squeal furiously on “Memória”. Penultimate track “Apocalipse” brings what its title promises: ominous orchestral majesty sounds the opening of the heavens against earthy drums and guitar, a perfect storm for the end of the world. Closing track “Exaltacão E Lamento Do Último Rei” (“Exaltation and Lament of the Last King”) is all that’s left once the dust clears, a pensive dirge that becomes a cuíca-laced dance tune before fading out into the sunset.
It’s terribly vague to call an album beautiful, but Obnoxius is just that; Mauro’s compositions are a perfect swirl of delicate aural tints and shades. Guitar, flute, and voice ripple outward like raindrops in a vast, gently rolling ocean of strings, balanced out by the sparing warmth of trumpet and drum. The avant-garde moments, the chromatic blasts and squeaks and bluesy harmonicas, and the occasional backdrops of spoken word all add texture and excitement. These intriguing elements keep Obnoxius from melting into merely sentimental background noise.
How does such a masterpiece vanish for so long? Rumors persist about José Mauro’s current whereabouts; he might have died before the album’s initial release, or he might have retreated to live a quieter lifestyle than that of his revolutionary contemporaries. Whatever happened to Mauro buried his psychedelic magnum opus, whether accidental or—as some conspiracy theorists suggest—an effort on the part of a brutal government constantly working to suppress artistic protests. Listening to it now feels like unwrapping a part of history that has been perfectly preserved, an artifact that sounds as fresh and novel as though it had been recorded last night instead of four decades ago. Obnoxius is brilliant, and Mauro’s lost genius, recovered after far too long a time, is a priceless treasure worth protecting for future generations to discover through the reissue of this album.
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