“Now I know what a ghost is. Unfinished business, that’s what.”
New York-based, avant-pop duo Cibo Matto have returned after a hiatus of 14 years to deliver their most bewitchingly bonkers album yet. Musicians Yuka C. Honda and Miho Hatori, the Japanese expatriates who arrived on the scene with tales of beef jerky, sugar water, and white pepper ice cream, are no longer suggesting that “you’ve got to know your chicken”. Their lyrical palette has expanded a bit since 1999‘s Stereo Type A, as in, there’s no “Sci-Fi Wasabi” to be found on the menu of this third outing, however, gastronomy still occasionally haunts the narrative of Hotel Valentine. Less of a comeback album and more of culmination of all the collaborative work and solo efforts the two artists have released in the years since their sophomore record, these ten ghostly songs announce the welcome return of one of the late ‘90s most innovative bands. The immensely entertaining Hotel Valentine sees Honda and Hatori pole vaulting over any preconceived notions that they’d return and simply retread ground they covered over a decade ago.
Rarely do artists successfully pull off concept albums, but this one is so deliriously absurd that it actually works quite well. The record revolves around a haunted hotel, the “10th Floor Ghost Girl” who materializes in the hallways, and a male guest who appears to be the only person who can see her. He becomes both fascinated, baffled and smitten by her appearance as the album progresses. Throughout the set, the apparition smokes out, swims in an empty pool, observes the daily lives of the hotel guests, and provides commentary on modern humanity, guns and radiation. As ghosts tend to do, I suppose. How the specter is physically able to smoke marijuana and eat cheese and seedless grapes is never explained, but her musings on life, shopping and the spirit world are continually amusing.
Unlike their previous recordings as a band, Hotel Valentine was self-produced by the frontwomen themselves, lending an air of intimacy to the whole proceedings. From their inception, the band’s willingness to gleefully experiment and blur genre lines, has been their calling card. Both of their previous albums have flaunted a diverse range of sounds from hip-hop, avant-garde synth-pop, African and Latin-flavored jazz, to funk and electronica, as heterogeneous as the multicultural melting pot of their NYC home base. In that sense, their latest is no different, but there’s a distinct songwriting maturity present in this album that wasn’t as prominent before.
The official video for the album’s first single “MFN” (aka “Motherfucking Nature”), featuring musician and comedian Reggie Watts, arrived in early December last year to much online fanfare. The technicolor-splattered visuals are at once overwhelming to the senses and comically childish, as if the ladies are throwing a dayglo paint party. Directed by the Chinatown, NYC creative production team of Georgia, it’s a fitting reintroduction to the delightfully deranged fashion style of the two ladies. No one but Cibo Matto could pull off an oversized t-shirt with a gigantic eyeball emblazoned across the front. Nestled in the center of the entire album, the song makes perfect sense, but as a lead single it’s a puzzling choice. There are so stylistic twists and turns throughout the track, it’s a bit disconcerting at first. The song hits its stride mid-way through when the ladies start rapping about “lobster, french bread and butter… don’t throw the fucking oyster shell at me”, as if they’re giving a referential wink and nod to the food imagery that dominated their debut album Viva! La Woman.
A clear runner for the album’s first single should have been the exceptionally addictive track “Deja Vu”. The second song off Hotel Valentine commences with what sounds like a swirling string sample from a Hitchcock film, then pleasantly bobs along with an occasional horn section thrown into the mix. The melody of the brass arrangement is pleasantly reminiscent of Bobby Caldwell’s blue-eyed soul classic “What You Won’t Do for Love”, without seeming plagiaristic. Abstract imagery abounds, with the duo rapping about 50-Cent, Nabokov and “expectations of humankind”, and a chorus so good, the term “earworm” should have been coined to describe it.
“10th Floor Ghost Girl”, the crunchy-guitared, jazzy dance track of the album, sees the hotel guest commenting on how mesmerized he is by the feminine phantom he keeps encountering. He smells her exotic perfume in the elevator and remarks that “she talks like American, she walks like Egyptian… she fades into the wall and goes through the door. Curiosity killed my fat black cat.” “Emerald Tuesday” concerns itself with the “sky is so pink”, drug-like intoxication of one of the hotel bar’s green-tinted cocktails. The psychedelic-laced track is almost like a darker, more kaleidoscopic version of a Deee-lite song. Ingenuity continues to pervade the record, with the prominent, pattering percussion and after hours smoky saxophone woven throughout the record’s title track, perfectly capturing the dreamlike sensation of being caught between earthly and spectral worlds.
Hotel Valentine’s second half proves to be just as alluring as everything that has come before. The beautiful, glitchy electro-ballad “Empty Pool” serves as a meditation on listlessness and loneliness. “Housekeeping” sees the duo rapping about the daily exploits of the hotel’s maids with a dirty, squelchy bass underscoring it all. As it concludes, Miho wails “I know how to set you free”, as if taunting the ghost. The album concludes with gossamer acoustic guitars and her childlike voice singing “we had a dream of endless light”.
At the end of the final track “Check Out”, the listener is left wondering whether the “international ghost girl” of the album has truly crossed over into the light and left her posh hotel purgatory or not. The mesmerizingly strange world Honda and Hatori have created, never provides a definite answer, yet maybe they don’t need to. One thing is for certain, Cibo Matto, like their ghostly heroine, have unfinished business to do. Thankfully, they aren’t planning on disappearing again for another decade once they release Hotel Valentine. There’s already some discussion about writing a fourth album once they tour and promote their latest. Since Stereo Type A they’ve aged gracefully and matured exponentially, both as artists and individuals. Still relevant in this current musical climate, the supernaturally surreal songs of Hotel Valentineare humorous, charmingly eccentric, challenging, accessible and deftly ingenious. After all these years, Cibo Matto remain relatively peerless.