Being genre-defying is such a cliché these days. Most interesting music is, to the point that being a strict genre-ist is almost seen as a shtick unto itself. So why is it that Cibo Matto are constantly mentioned for this seemingly common feat? Possibly because they set the bar on how it’s fucking done. Viva! La Woman, their garage-rock-pop-punk-hip/trip-hop debut concept album about food was an early indication that Miho Hatori and Yuka Honda had broad tastes and weren’t exactly precious about the sanctity of any of them.
Sean Lennon joined the band on their second album, Stereo Type A, which was perhaps more pop oriented and accessible. Yet it still featured a dizzying array of musical stylings, sometimes within a single song. “Lint of Love” is a funk-r&b-pop-hip-hop-metal-ska fusion that actually works. Maybe its this blatant, in-your-face blending that prompts many to bestow the moniker of “experimental” upon the band, despite the fact that most of their songs are laden with melodic hooks to rival most pop songs. The incorporation of spoken word narrative and humor certainly add to their distinct off-beat brand, but a term like “experimental” does them an injustice because the mixture feels natural and unforced.
Of course all of this was nearly 15 years prior to the release of their latest album, Hotel Valentine, providing just enough time to accumulate a ravenous cult of fans with high expectations. Despite the album being released on his Chimera label the album is Lennonless, which only added to the uncertainty and general trepidation leading up to its release on Valentine’s Day 2014.
The first track doesn’t exactly quell any misgivings going into it. Predictably titled “Check In”, one is stuck with a bright but slightly more bombastic production style somewhere between hip-hop and dance pop that creates misgivings. Production capabilities on full display, could this be another example of style over substance? The verses sound like a cheerleading squad and the choruses set an upbeat pop melody against a dissonant and basstactular electronic blob. As the track ends, a narrative voice proclaims, “she’s fucking weird, but I can’t stop thinking of her.” Prophetic, or trying too hard?
It should be noted that like their first album, Hotel Valentine is also concept in nature: the songs are framed from the perspective of a ghost in a hotel. This might sound alarming, but rest assured that the theme is subtle, it’s not like an alternative music version of Tommy or something. The sonic texture of Hotel Valentine is also more reminiscent of Viva! La Woman than Stereo Type A’, using sounds and samples that sometime seem lifted directly from the debut album.
The second track, “Déjà Vu, starts off with just such a sample, yet develops into a song that most resembles the sound of Stereo Type A with funky grooves, soulful singing and expert guitar noodling. After the disorienting first track, this feels more comfortable and familiar, so it’s not just a clever title. The groove continues right into “10th Floor Ghost Girl” which features a positively Off the Wall bass funk and a slightly off kilter dance club sing along chorus.
The moment “Emerald Tuesday” kicks in you know it’s the coolest track on the album. Samples of upright bass and organ syncopate against a sultry vocal performance. One is almost reminded of some of the instrumental work of the Beastie Boys or maybe early DJ Shadow. Yeah, it’s that fucking cool. So cool, that by the time Mfn (psst, that’s Motherfucking Nature) comes on and you hear Cibo Matto channel M.I.A. with comedian guest star Reggie Watts you’ve totally bought in. What will they do next?
The title track itself plays very much like “Theme” from Viva! and true to its title acts as the anchor song for the overarching theme. Classic Cibo Matto sounds mingle with modern production capabilities, and the result begins to feel like the perfect and natural evolution of their sound. The haunting noir of “Empty Pool” is set against a bed of beeps and bloops. The refrains of “deep thoughts lay high” in “Lobby” and interjections of “Fresh!” in “Housekeeping” are decidedly stoner-friendly.
“Check Out”, the ending track, is frankly just as baffling as its bookend counterpart. Mellow if a bit atonal, it lulls you into a vulnerably chill mind state before delivering a strong dose of treble that is borderline painful in headphones. A bit uncalled for that, but after the journey preceding it, a forgivable flamboyance. Forgivable because it means Cibo Matto are back, and they have been missed.
In the 90’s Cibo Matto crafted a truly distinctive sound, that stood out even among contemporaries like Beck or even Portishead (who also only have 3 proper albums). Its genre-bending for sure, but that doesn’t define it. It’s an approach and perspective on music that is unique to the Miho/Yuka combination. Its joyous and adventurous, and even the bits that are disorienting hold certain fascination. As it turns out “she’s fucking weird, but I can’t stop thinking of her.”