Gray days and another four years of George W. Bush: It's enough to kill the most optimistic of liberals. Mosquitos, I think, are arriving in Memphis just in time. Nope, I'm not referencing those pesky insects that plague the Bluff City from May to November. I'm talking about Mosquitos, the sugary New York-meets-Brazil musical trio -- a band capable of piercing the gloom with a superhero-strength ray of sunshine.
Mosquitos' eponymous debut, released in the summer of 2003, was borne of guitarist Chris Root's attraction to Brazilian singer Juju Stulbach. "I was acting in a film, and one of Chris' friends was directing it," Stulbach relates in her breathy, girlish voice in a recent phone interview with the Flyer. "Chris was blowing up balloons, and I was sitting on the stairs with half my body outside, smoking and humming some songs. Apparently, he fell in love with my feet."
Root, a guitarist with the rock band AM60, was intrigued. "He told me he'd always wanted to hear Brazilian music, and I happened to have a few CDs with me," Stulbach says with a laugh. "My visa was running out, and I was on my way back to Brazil."
After she returned to Rio de Janeiro, however, Stulbach received a call from Root. "He said he wanted to write music with me, but I told him I'm not a singer -- I'm an actor," Stulbach recalls. "I thought the guy was nuts. A week later, I was picking him up at the airport. We wrote six songs together."
Back in New York, Root got another friend, Jon Marshall Smith, to add keyboards to the material. In a letter to Stulbach, he also proposed a name: Mosquitos. "I said okay, do whatever you want," she says, "and then on the way to the meeting with [record label] Bar/None, I met Jon."
Root had pitched the band to the indie label before they'd even performed together. Then, one of the songs off that first CD landed on an episode of The O.C., and Mosquitos performed a sold-out show at Austin's South by Southwest music festival. Next, they toured with the French electronica duo Air. Before the release of their second album, Sunshine Barato, Root, Stulbach, and Smith found themselves a legitimate group.
"I actually came to New York to be a dancer. Then I got involved in theater, and now I'm a singer," Stulbach says, still a little surprised at Mosquitos' success.
"When my parents heard the first CD, they were like, 'That's cute. It's nice that you did that.' I don't think they knew that Chris was that serious.
"It's all his fault," she says with a mock groan. "It's a very sweet story of how life just happens."
Sunshine Barato means, literally, "cheap sunshine." Its lyrics -- half in English, half in Portuguese -- provide clues to Stulbach and Root's personal relationship in incomplete sentences that loosely sketch the truth. "A song about a telephone/I'm alone and I'm thinking of you," Root sings on the title track before Stulbach answers him, charmingly, in her native language. Part bossa nova and part indie rock, the tune draws equal parts of Yo La Tengo's "My Little Corner of the World" and Astrud Gilberto's "The Girl From Ipanema," with a sampling of the Velvet Underground's "Stephanie Says" thrown in for good measure.
"I could already hear the love for bossa nova in the rhythms of AM60," Stulbach claims. "Then Chris showed me some Beach Boys, and we went into a whole Beatles thing. He was a Paul fan, and I was a John fan, but we switched. I fell in love with Bowie, the Kinks, and the Velvet Underground too, and I showed Chris more Brazilian stuff like Rita Lee and the fathers of bossa nova."
Mosquitos' influences don't stop there: Although it's sung entirely in Portuguese, "Avocado" is flavored with rootsy, Americana-based music, while "Domesticada" thumps and wails. A handful of songs, including "No Fim Do Pais" and "So Voce E Eli," harken back to the beaches of Rio and Gilberto's whispered vocal style.
Root's love-song-cum-lullaby "Dream Awake" is a joyful low-fi ballad which marks its time with castanets, while on the electronica duet "Free As Love," the young lovers list the items that make their world go 'round ("Wasted times, rainbows, and sunshine") with an earnestness that sounds as extreme as it is enjoyable.
"Love and sunshine, hugs and kisses -- those are positive things that people really need," Stulbach says. "We just provide a couple of minutes that aren't devoted to death and destruction." She pauses to choose her words carefully. "We want to fill your heart."
The last track on Sunshine Barato hammers that point home. "Everybody's left the beach/Summer is over, but we're not going anywhere," Stulbach sings on "27 Degrees." "We're just waiting for the sunshine to come back again."