By Hollister Dixon
When I was maybe 12, the kid that turned me on to The Cure and The Unicorns sent over a song that blew my young mind. The song in question was “Spoon” by the Japanese band Cibo Matto (made up of two women, Miho Hatori and Yuka Honda – the fact that I didn’t have to look that up says a lot about the state of my 12-year-old mind), from their second and (at the time) final album, Stereo*Type A. “My aunt sent me this record. It’s insane. I need you to listen to it.” He proceeded to send me the entirety of Stereo*Type A over AOL Instant Messenger, one song at a time. This was 2003, and sharing albums was a pain in the ass if you didn’t know what you were doing. Little did I know that, just a year-and-a-half before that, the frontwoman of Cibo Matto, Miho Hatori, was already a potent earworm of a woman, having provided vocals for the Gorillaz song “19-2000”, which was burning up the airwaves at the time. The late 90s and the early aughts were a weird time for music, and Cibo Matto were on the forefront of that weirdness. They made an album called Viva! La Woman, which was packed with food imagery. On the song “Sci-Fi Wasabi”, Hatori namechecked Obi-Wan Kenobi twice. Their bassist and guitarist, Sean Lennon, went on to form The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger after the group disbanded, after enjoying a nice long stint as the son of Yoko Ono and John Lennon (the group has since performed with Yoko Ono). They once played “Moonchild” at The Bronze, the club in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It was a weird time for the empire.
I never thought I’d get to hear a new Cibo Matto record. They were a band that were in the past, doomed to never return, a relic of the earlier parts of the last decade. Imagine my immense surprise when I learned, late one night, that not only were they back, but they were just a couple weeks away from that new album I’d always hoped for. It’s always a wonderful feeling to get new music from a long-gone band, and even more wonderful when that band helped shape your life, if only in a small, yet still noticeable, way.
The first thing I notice when I put on Hotel Valentine is that it’s much, much more subtle than its now 15-year-old sibling, the aforementioned Stereo*Type A. Where that album was a massive, skronky mass of J-pop energy, with massive horns all over the place and mile-high beats, it’s almost like this album was born 16. The pop sheen of Cibo Matto’s older material is still ever-present, but Hatori and Honda are holding back on us a little bit. There was an all-over-the-place quality to the last record, but this one feels… dare I say… cohesive? It’s a strange word to use for the music, considering the hodgepodge nature of their music is something I’ve always loved so very much. But, that’s okay – it almost feels as though they’ve grown with me. The horn stabs are still here, and the painfully sleek guitar grime is too – “Deja Vu” and “10th Floor Ghost Girl” are riddled with these things, the latter being bouncy and sexy enough to make up for their long absence.
It’s entirely possible that all of this could be the result of an incredible team behind Hatori and Honda: whereas last time we had Sean Lennon, this time we have Nels Cline, Glenn Kotche (both current Wilco members), Reggie Watts, Douglas Wieselman (known for his work with Antony & the Johnsons), and a boatload of others. Surrounded by that much talent, it would be really hard to not make something wonderful, but as far as I’m concerned, Hotel Valentine is a home run.
You can take that or leave that. Maybe I’m too close to the band, and am just too happy to have a new record, and can’t see the flaws. But, there are flaws. Sometimes, the album wanders a bit: lead single “MFN” feels too tied to the past, while trying desperately to move itself forward, with a chorus that just sounds out of place in the framework of the song. The lyrics are sometimes hard to manage, as well, with the 4-minute “Lobby” trying to tell an unintelligible story, doing its best to squander a wonderful beat. But even those songs are reasonably delightful to listen to while passing through the album that shares more of than a few aesthetic traits with last year’s dinner party centerpiece Woman, the debut by LA’s Rhye. And, really, if you’re listening to Cibo Matto for lyrics, you’re approaching this band for the wrong reason. This is a band that once sang about the “lint of love”.
But, those quirks aside, it’s hard to not feel wrapped up in Hotel Valentine, if you let yourself sink into it. The name and the release date are by no means an accident, and it’s clear that the album was designed to be a sexy, romantic little jaunt, choosing to not challenge you, but simply please you. Listening for the first time, I feel like I’m missing the wave of nostalgia I expected when I started up “Check In”. But, instead of nostalgia, I found a decent amount of comfort, mostly due to the fact that, even after a 15-year gap, they’ve still got the right amount of power to make me want to obsess over them, and want to ignore the silly flaws. I don’t care if they’re flawed, or if they make everything-but-the-kitchen-sink records – I’m just really glad to have Cibo Matto back.