It’s been fourteen years since the Cibo Matto pair of Miho Hatori and Yuka C. Honda have recorded an official record under the moniker they used to create “Stereo ★ Type A ” (1999) and the campy “Viva! La Woman” (1996). It’s the mish-mash quality of the music on those records that makes Cibo Matto such an intriguing listen. Judging by the new record, “Hotel Valentine”, they’re in better form than they’ve ever been, fine-tuning what made them so good in the first place. The new record is a mashing together of oddball rhythmic transitions, seemingly incompatible styles, quirky lyrics, and nutty aphorisms under a canopy of strangeness and ingenuity. “Hotel Valentine” takes listeners on a supernatural musical journey through a haunted hotel, moving from “Check In” to “10th Floor Ghost Girl”, to the title track, and “Empty Pool”, “Lobby”, “Housekeeping”, ending with “Check Out”.
The first streamed single is an electronic gem called “MFN” (aka Motherfuckin’ Nature), thumping with a distinctive beat and anesthetic vocal harmonizing about room service, and Cibo Matto’s familiar gastronomic concerns (“Lobster, french bread and butter … / Don’t throw the fucking oyster shell at me”) and the worry whether or not motel life is really all that’s it’s cracked up to be. “MFN” calls to mind an older track like “Beef Jerky”, with dead-pan irreverently written lines like, “My weight is 300 pounds / My favorite is beef jerky.” Longtime fans have come to expect a steady mention of food, from the band whose name means “Crazy Food” in Italian. Take the refrain on the 1996 track, “Birthday Cake”: “Extra sugar, extra salt, extra oil and MSG!” But there’s more to this record than a Cibo Matto culinary philosophy. There’s a lot to love, for fans of both the strange, fun, art-house debut record and the more melodic, funk-jazz, groove-centric sophomore release.
The first standout track, “Deja Vu”, begins with repeated synth, a pushing beat and vocal harmonics that fall and drift into hypnotic phrases like, “You’re so high / I’m walking on air” and “Is it real / Or is it a dream?” There will be reviewers who, hearing Cibo Matto for the first time, or even those with extensive knowledge of the band, that will think this record is the kitchen-sink approach. The truth is Cibo Matto’s music has always been like that, moving freely in and out of jazz, funk art-pop, serious flows and wacky lyricism. In “Deja Vu”, the duo wax about reading only the last page of Nabokov book, name-drop 50 Cent, and find time to rap, reaching for phrases connected only by sound or subconscious association: “not making sense” and finding one’s “sixth sense”.
Cibo Matto’s music has generally been built on a base of surrealism, which gets turned on its head (often for humor’s sake), and then righted through wild musical transitions and gorgeous harmonies fueled by a cheeky and flippant abuse of absurdity. It’s musical dadaism. Not that you shouldn’t take Cibo Matto or “Hotel Valentine” seriously. As evidenced by the music itself, this band is not trite or niche. The sound of the new album is less about the psycho-shouting of “Birthday Cake” and closer to the soul-caressing balladry of tracks like “Speechless” and “King of Silence” (especially the second half of the record), or the word-soup “Sci-Fi Wasabi”, a song that found space for the auditory lyrical pleasure of food concerns and Star Trek conjuring: “Feeling stromboli, not ravioli … / Obi-Wan Kenobi told me in the lobby.”
“Hotel Valentine” dumps the claustrophobia of “Viva!” and in its place is a more expansive musical freedom. It feels like the band have now found a center amid the chaos. And that is best heard in the title track, which fuses a cool Cuban percussion, ghostly saxophone like a passing train whistle, and light vocals. The lyrics take the point-of-view of the ghost, winding beautifully into a snaking cabaret rhythm: “Nobody cares or sees me / I just wander this world / On this stairway I play … / Going through the door / Flying from the dark floor / Going through the hollow … / Don’t close the door of your daydreams / Nowhere to fall / Nowhere.” The song “Empty Pool” is considerably down-tempo, scratchy samples and computer-ized blips add a texture to quiet lead vocals about the nature of being alone.
Cibo Matto have found the right blend of traditionally melodic musical architecture that leaves just enough room to experiment, and push into those well-known flights of bombast. There are some tired moments, like “Lobby”, which falls into “Candy Man” territory, where simple poetic whispering over the top of instrumentation feels like a record losing steam, a deflating balloon. The strange but soulful “Housekeeping” brings it all back though, like some low-light Prince track, with gorgeous R&B backing vocals, curious musical layers, and a spoken phrase like housekeeping at the door. It all revolves around the repeated phrase: “I know how to set you free.” Cibo Matto is one of the few bands I can think of that can come out of hiatus fourteen years later and make music that still doesn’t sound like anyone else. Note: You can stream the entire record at NPR First Listen for as long as the link exists. All lyrics are unofficial.