For all intents and purposes, Cibo Matto was dead. After 1999’s Stereo Type A, chief songwriters Miho Hatori and Yuka Honda put the act on hiatus. Weeks became years, years became decades. Nostalgia claimed the band, which would be remembered for minor radio hits about poultry and sugar water — an eccentric artifact of an eccentric era.
So, it’s fitting that the ostensibly deceased band would suddenly return 15 years later with a concept album about a hotel in the afterlife. Honest enough, the duo was just waiting patiently on an idea that finally came, a soundtrack to a fantastical, non-existent film. The concept behind Hotel Valentine is self-evident, an important aspect for a project like this. You look at the song titles (“Lobby”, “Empty”, etc.), and little pictures go off in your head as the music plays. The soundtrack is heard and the film is seen in the subconscious. Hatori and Honda go so far as to create a mythology for their hotel, never explicitly stating its nature but dropping enough lyrical hints to illustrate a vague setting: a place where transient spirits can live in blissful anarchy, practicing bohemian hedonism and indulging every lust. Like a Hotel Chelsea for the dead, the party’s eternal; you check out when you want to. “Be free…” repeats the album’s opener, “Check In”.
Cibo Matto has always been a champion of the esoteric and bizarre, but they reach a whole new plane on Hotel Valentine. They’re still impossible to pin to a genre — the common umbrella tags are a reduction — as they float between hip-hop, rock, and jazz, often in the same song. In sheer acts of personality, the duo twists and deforms the laws of pop music, like on “Déjà Vu”, when creepy string samples morph into an R&B chorus before a slick Nels Cline guitar solo comes out of nowhere to close things out. The Wilco guitarist is just one of the bonafide talents (including Reggie Watts and bandmate Glenn Kotche) the band brought in to replace multi-instrumentalist Sean Lennon. Nevertheless, this newly assembled team compliments Cibo Matto well, adding color to Honda’s beats and synth lines, and following right along with whatever fantasies the band comes up with.
These songs are adventures. They share a consistent groove and a murkiness that evokes the haunted hallways of the title hotel. Each track brims with anecdotes about the ridiculous ghosts who live there, filtered through Cibo Matto’s patented humor. There’s the cheeky housekeeper who pockets money and drugs whenever she sees ‘em (“Housekeeping”, Watts’ largest contribution) and the ghost who can’t seem to seduce the temptress on the 10th floor (“10th Floor Ghost Girl”). These are balanced with more serious moments, notably album highlight “Emerald Tuesday”, a freeform psychedelic jazz piece about restless souls who drink themselves to sleep.
Hotel Valentine ends before its mysteries are solved, the serene closer “Check Out” hinting that this was some fun but unfulfilling purgatory. Given Cibo Matto’s 15-year disappearance, the record is a surprising achievement, more mature than their past work, but still “out there” in that charming Cibo Matto way. Hotel Valentine isn’t just a soundtrack to non-existent film, but an otherworldly excursion unto itself, best experienced with headphones on and eyes shut.
Essential Tracks: “Emerald Tuesday”, “Housekeeping”