A Futuristic Jazz Cabaret
When a band names themselves after the Italian words for “crazy food,” you might expect their music to be a little off the beaten path. And Cibo Matto certainly don’t disappoint in that regard. The NYC-based band, founded by Japanese expatriates and all-around kick-ass girl-rockers Yuka Honda and Miho Hatori, formed in 1994 and released two albums and a few EPs to critical acclaim before breaking up in 2002. The band reunited in 2011, joined by drummer Yuko Araki, and Hotel Valentine is their third full-length record and their first release since the ’90s.
Instead of making an album of songs based around a culinary concept, like their 1996 debut Viva! La Woman (which had songs like “Birthday Cake” and “Know Your Chicken”), Hotel Valentine loosely tells the story of a ghostly guest haunting the rooms and hallways of the fictional Hotel Valentine. The album begins appropriately with the percussive “Check In,” where eerie effects, high choral vocals, hooky synths and a rumbling, buzzing bass draw you into the phantasmic, strange world of the Hotel Valentine. Right away, Cibo Matto straddle the line between weird and catchy, and that’s how most of the album proceeds. “Déjà vu” has the clicking of an old camera taking pictures creating an odd rhythm, with almost dissonant synths and those high-pitched choral vocals that transition into a more melodic, hooky section with horn flourishes and a low, throaty alto pseudo-rap.
Cibo Matto’s music is distinctive for its era-crossing blend of genres and styles. “10th Floor Ghost Girl” delves into a sort of disco, with a syncopated beat, funky guitar coming out in spurts of treble riffs, soulful, jazzy horns and a danceable bass thumping below the synths. It’s almost reminiscent of an LCD Soundsystem track, if they were female, Japanese and had both a little more ‘70s influence and more of a punk rock attitude.
“Emerald Tuesday” sounds like experimental jazz, and the title track and “Lobby” both combine the sultry, smooth sax and airy vocals of jazzy cabaret. But “Empty Pool” then takes on spacey, futuristic tones and “MFN” and “Housekeeping” really wouldn’t seem that out of place on an M.I.A. record. The final track, titled “Check Out” (of course), moves in an even different direction, featuring plucked, acoustic guitar notes and a slow, choral soprano vocal melody to ease you out of the Hotel Valentine and send you back into the real world, blinking in the sunlight.
As a concept album, Hotel Valentine is an exemplar of the genre: it creates an atmosphere, and a world, without coming across as too ideological or heavy-handed, and it combines elements of jazz, hip-hop, pop and electronica in one of the strangest, but most interesting, releases of 2014 so far.