1996 was an awesome year for music. So many good records released that year. On January 16, Cibo Matto released their debut LP, Viva! La Woman. This is probably the weirdest record I’ve taken on thus far.
A duo is comprised of Yuka Honda and Miho Hatori (who later worked with Gorillaz), a pair of Japanese ex-pats from New York City in a band with an Italian name (cibo matto translates to “crazy food”) performing an album ostensibly about food. With the exception of “Theme” and hidden track “Jive,” (which is just 18 seconds of Miho slapping her thighs arhythmically) (for the youngsters, bands used to ‘hide’ unlisted tracks at the end of CDs just for kicks) each of the song titles could wind up on a menu.
I was originally introduced to Cibo Matto when I heard the excellent “Know Your Chicken” single thanks to the formerly great, now sadly defunct, CMJ Monthly music magazine. The magazine used to come with a CD included which contained a sampling of recently released tracks. It was a wonderful introduction to some of my favorite bands of the 90s, including Cibo Matto, Ben Folds, Presidents Of The United States Of America, Elastica, and Ben Lee.
The album is largely electronic with horns added in from guest musicians. With the exception of the horns and a guest spot by the legendary Bernie Worrell, all instruments were played by Yuka Honda who also mixed and engineered the record. Vocals are contributed by Miho Hatori, who is credited with “singing, howling, moaning, sighing, [and] thigh tapping.” The songs are all sung in heavily accented English and frequently veer toward the indecipherable, particularly since many of the songs are things no one sings about: parts of “Birthday Cake” sound as though they come straight from a cookbook.
Overall, the album is upbeat and experimental (to the point of the avant garde at times), but still super catchy and aurally engrossing. Lyrically, it’s a bit all over the place; “Beef Jerky” begins with the lyrics, “My weight is 300 pounds / My favorite is beef jerky / I’m a vagabond / My mom says ‘You are kinky!'” I find this funny because both band members are tiny. Then they go off and write something lovely like, “It smells like the sands of the southern island / When a black cat crosses my path / A woman in the moon is singing to the earth,” in “Sugar Water.”
Viva! La Woman includes a haunting, minimalist, electronic cover of “The Candy Man,” in which Miho speaks the lyrics rather than singing them and in which the title character comes off as somehow more predatory than Sammy Davis Jr. ever imagined. “Artichoke” is a softly whispered, sprawling meditation on lost love. “Theme” is a nearly eleven minute sexy jazz number recounting a tryst in Milan.
I’m a big fan of this album, though I cannot recommend it for everyone. If I had to sum it up with a phrase, it might be “off-the-beaten-path Japanese-American experimental electropop.” That’s not a category that gets its own listing in the iTunes store. However, if you’re not familiar with the Cibo Matto and you’re in the mood for something markedly different from just about anything else out there, it’s certainly worth the forty eight minutes it takes to give it a listen through. You might surprise yourself by liking it.