One doesn’t normally expect big names at a record release party for an obscure band’s debut album. Quirky Asian hip-hop groups aren’t exactly “the thing” in modern music, either. It’s all the more reason to notice Cibo Matto, a pair of Japanese women living in Greenwich Village, whose first musical celebration was attended by, among others, Yoko Ono, Lou Reed, and performance artist Laurie Anderson. Although the music Cibo Matto creates consists of mostly hip-hop rhythms, layered with broken English, jazz riffs, and other various sound effects, these elements, which initially may seem disparate, result in a wonderfully effective fusion of genres, as witnessed on the album, Viva! La Woman.
Probably the first sign of Cibo Matto’s uniqueness is their name, which means “food madness” in Italian, and which is appropriate since seven of the ten tracks have as a title some sort of food or drink. “Apple,” for example, gives way to “Beef Jerky” at the four minute mark of the album. Understandably, this unusual obsession also makes for some bizarre lyrics, a feature compounded by the fact that the group’s songwriter, Miho Hatori, has only spent three years in the United States and is not fully accustomed to the English language. The instantly catchy “Know Your Chicken,” boasts the puzzling line, “We got 2 babies / Isn’t it cool? / One is Magenta, the other is Blue.”
Like the Manhattan neighborhood in which they live, Cibo Matto’s musical style is a melting pot, a mix of jazz, dance club beats, trip-hop, rap, and even, on one occasion, 1940’s Andrews Sisters swing. In “Sugar Water,” for example, Hatori (also the lead singer) begins the song with a spoken intro, which when accompanied by synthesizer, resembles the audio to some narrated Epcot Center ride. Soon, a bass-heavy rhythm ensues, and by the end of the song, we’ve encountered eerily detached backing vocals, a touch of acoustic guitar, and a dance-pop chorus of “la’s.” What may be the group’s strength, however, is that whicle all of the tracks on the ablum certainly contain similar elements, not one really sounds like another. “Birthday Cake,” released as a single last year, is an aggressive Beastie Boys-style rant, whereas “White Pepper Ice Cream” is a slow, moody poem, its lazy reading and muted trumpets bordering on beatnik pretention.
In some ways, paradoxically, this variety works to Cibo Matto’s disadvantage as well. The first few times I spun Woman on my CD player, I found myself wishing there were more songs like “Le Pain Perdu,” apparently a paean to maple syrup, which relies heavily on a Duke Ellington sample. An album chock full of horn-tinged, energetic nonsense would delight me to no end; however, since Cibo Matto is still in the experimental stage of the band, I must also put up with “Artichoke,” a long (6:38) and repetitive ballad of piano chords.
And yet in the end, the good does outweigh the bad. Although they don’t necessarily have pop hooks as strong as Pizzicato Five (the “other” Japanese dance group, responsible for last year’s novelty hit “Twiggy Twiggy”), Cibo Matto make up for it with a lot more depth structurally. There’s a moment in the opening track, “Apple,” in which the beat stops to reveal a muffled melody that could have been lifted from a classical Oriental opera, complete with percussive bells and woodwinds. A minute later into the song, Hatori repeats the simple theme, but takes it a step further; with a strong, clear voice, she extends the high notes, more or less “breaking free” of the constrictive Eastern sound. It reinforces the idea that although the women’s roots may always be in Japan, the band Cibo Matto is concerned with far more than just Asian styles. And when that means an album as strangely fun as this one, it’s definitely a plus.