Two Japanese women write songs about food, sample Duke Ellington, and set it all to sci-fi trip-hop beats. In other words: complete musical genius.
"How did you come up with this one, girls? It’s just so tough for any musician to follow, ‘cause your brand of magic is in every song you cooked. Hey, I’m ready for the dessert, sisters!"
--Yoko Ono (from the liner notes of Pom Pom: The Essential Cibo Matto)
In the Big Book of Rock History, Cibo Matto -- in all likelihood -- will go down as a footnote. However, few footnotes are as diverse, exciting, weird or genuinely fun as the female Japanese pop duo who took on an Italian band name and then wrote an excessive amount of songs about food. Back in 1995, few songs this side of Björk were as off-beat or exciting as "Know Your Chicken" or "Birthday Cake", miniature trip-hop parties with countless horn samples and Miho Hatori’s fantastic broken-English faux-rapping peppering each track. Even today, their landmark 1996 debut ( Viva! La Woman) still sounds remarkably fresh, largely due to the fact that in the late-’90s alt-rock sweepstakes, few groups (rock or otherwise) knew how to have genuine fun in the recording studio -- something Cibo Matto had in spades.
However, the influential duo’s reign of weird was short-lived. After Viva!, they released one major EP (the 1997 remix-heavy Super Relax) and their 1999 sophomore full-length (swan song Stereo Type A) managed to gather some Billboard chart ink, but it was tossed off by some for not being as groundbreaking as the debut. Since, the group disbanded, Hatori got roped into the first incarnation of Damon Albarn’s Gorillaz, while sample-master Yuka Honda got into producing, with both members dropping the occasional solo release here and there.
For such a frighteningly small discography, the idea of making a best-of compilation is an intimidating one: how does one pick the "greatest" songs off of a pair of LPs? The precedent has already been set (Hilary Duff managed the feat back in 2005), but here’s a canon that has few missteps -- leave off the wrong set of songs and diehard fans will be up in arms! Yet Rhino (the undisputed master of music recycling) manages the feat on Pom Pom: The Essential Cibo Matto by including eight of Viva! La Woman’s ten songs, dangerously close to rendering the landmark disc inessential (thankfully it’s spared such a fate by Rhino leaving the excellent ten-minute epic "Theme" right where it is). Stereo -- with its intimidating 16 tracks -- only gets seven tunes featured here (eight if you count the previously-unreleased Dan the Automator remix of "King of Silence"). By all accounts, Pom Pom should be a sprawling mess, as if one shuffled two different decks of cards together and pulled out a hand at random. Fortunately for Rhino (and the listener), any hand would have been a Royal Flush.
In a pop landscape where Timbaland’s once-obscure sci-fi beats are now considered the norm, it’s still amazing how remarkably fresh and exciting an 11-year-old track like "Sugar Water" can sound. Featuring half-there acoustic guitars, opera vocalists in the background, and obtuse lines like, "the buildings are changing into coconut trees / little by little"; it’s not as much about making a point as it is just being overwhelmed by the delicious strangeness of it all. The album is smartly spread out (not front-loaded with singles), allowing great but lesser-known songs like "Spoon" and "Flowers" to shine through, while still retaining time-tested fan favorites like "Sci-Fi Wasabi", "Working for Vacation", and "Moonchild" (which, if you haven’t heard yet, will no doubt become favorites very soon).
However, the true Cibo Matto completists will still find much to gripe about, and justifiably so. The disc does try to entice hardcore fans with either unreleased tracks (the totally inessential downbeat number "Swords and a Paintbrush") or hard-to-find rarities (like the space-rock ditty "Backseat", initially found in the import edition of Stereo Type A), but ultimately those songs take up space that could be used for a litany of other great tunes. What happened to Stereo’s "Blue Train"? How about any song off of the Super Relax EP (which gets omitted in its entirety)? Yet perhaps the greatest tragedy is that we don’t get to see one of Cibo Matto’s greatest talents: the cover song. Throughout their career, they’ve done everything from covering Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Aguas de Marco" to singing Soundgarden’s "Black Hole Sun" in French. They’ve done drastic reinterpretations of the Rolling Stones’ "Sing This All Together" and even Nirvana’s "About a Girl", and each one showcases not only the girls’ affinity for pop music, but also their ability to completely re-contextualize a song while still retaining its heart. This is a side of the group that Pom Pom regretfully ignores.
However, these complaints are -- in the long run -- really just splitting hairs. The unknowing record buyer who picks this is about to be sent on a wild careening ride through the modern pop song, and few things will ever be as memorable. Plus, any group that can rhyme "Obi-Wan Kenobi told me in the lobby" together in a song is instantly granted "essential" status. As a monument and tribute to one of the most unique musical duos in the past decade, it may not be the most complete document ever assembled, but it doesn’t have to be: Cibo Matto doesn’t need to win your heart over in 19 songs -- they can do it in just one.