NYC Art-Pop Fixtures Cibo Matto Return With the Charmingly Unnerving 'Hotel Valentine'

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Hotel Valentine
Critical Mass
Release Date: February 14, 2014
Label: Chimera

by Jon Young

Everyone has them: those unguarded moments when unfiltered joy or unbridled terror washes over you like a tidal wave. Kids experience such raw feeling naturally; encumbered by overloaded brains, adults have various ways of reattaining it, savory and otherwise. On the third album from Cibo Matto, Japanese émigrés Miho Hatori (vocals) and Yuka Honda (keyboards, sampler) perform a small miracle by transforming self-conscious, genre-spanning paste-ups into vivid scenes that unleash a similar rush of pure sensation, like an overwhelming dream veering abruptly from ecstasy to gloom and back again, over and over.

Hotel Valentine has been a long time coming. Gestating on New York's Lower East Side in the '90s, Cibo Matto released their last album, Stereo Type A, in 1999, though both women kept busy during the hiatus, with Honda producing Yoko Ono, Martha Wainwright, and erstwhile Cibo mate Sean Lennon, and Hatori supplying vocals for Gorillaz and the Beastie Boys, whose eclectic sensibility greatly informed this duo. Still, given the length of their separation, the total absence of rust here is surprising: This record feels, if anything, more effortless and fully realized than either Stereo Type A or their celebrated 1996 debut Viva! La Woman, which both could seem too pleased with their own charming ingenuity. (Every song title on Viva! La Woman referenced food, for example.)

True, Valentine purports to be a concept album, though it's debatable how cohesive said concept is. Ghosts populate the narrative, observing the physical world and urging the living to "be free from what you are," even as they try to make the best of their disembodied state. Hatori sometimes raps with relaxed authority and elsewhere sings sweetly, ensconced in lightly funky grooves and creamy pop melodies. Featuring contributions from guitarist Nels Cline, percussionist Mauro Fresco, and gonzo vocalist Reggie Watts, the result features two certified masterpieces: "10th Floor Ghost Girl," a Talking Heads-style rave-up with big horns, and "Empty Pool," a mournfully electronica-tinged meditation on loneliness. Everything else is nearly as potent.

Do not mistake Cibo Matto for merely a quirky (such a patronizing word!) diversion. Hatori and Honda aim to induce cold chills here, whether by contemplating "the sea of horror" and exhorting, "Don't close your eyes from fear" amid a slinky '60s-lounge vibe in "Déjà Vu," or concluding, "Long may we wave as endless light" on the final track, the delicate and spooky "Check Out." Ostensibly a supernatural tale, Hotel Valentine challenges the listener to reflect on life, death, and nothingness. Whether that inspires joy or terror depends on you, but it'll inspire something.

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