Viva! la Woman
By Peter Margasak
You’d almost expect the flat bellies of Cibo Matto’s Yuka Honda and Miho Hatori to be swollen with food considering the gastronomic celebrations that fill their debut, Viva! la Woman. The group–whose name is a loose Italian translation of “crazy food” and whose songs have titles like “Apple,” “Sugar Water,” “Artichoke,” and “Know Your Chicken”–was, according to the liner notes, “conceived over the dinner table.” But the duo’s hearty appetite for comestibles is merely symptomatic of their more general hunger for the spice of life: variety. Born and raised in Japan, living in New York City, singing in broken English, and naming themselves in Italian, Cibo Matto in a way brilliantly symbolize the melting pot of the East Village. But their cultural hodgepodge is perhaps best reflected in the way they cross-pollinate musical genres.
Loosely appropriating the rudiments of hip-hop–Honda provides a lush sample-derived soundscape while Hatori sings, screams, raps, and whispers–the duo upend vaguely similar approaches developed by pals like Soul Coughing and the Beastie Boys and nonchalantly provide the logical extreme of postmod synthesis. Cibo Matto have concocted a universal stew from the loads of ingredients that can be found in New York, incorporating ambient city sounds, like beats emanating from a passing car. Masterfully produced by Mitchell Froom, Viva! la Woman ladles gobs of ethnic samples over phat beats–not necessarily of the B-girl variety, but succulent grooves nonetheless, which casually spice up the rhythms with dashes of Indian tablas, Latin American congas, and Caribbean steel drums. Honda doesn’t merely reconfigure preexisting chunks of music to form sonic skeletons; her multilayering delivers a near-orchestral sweep that juxtaposes all kinds of seemingly incongruous elements. On “White Pepper Ice Cream,” which transports Portishead’s “Sour Times” out of the cinema and onto a city block, Honda constructs a stunning evocation of a lonely summer evening in New York City as heard from a fire escape. Cars and subway trains pass, thunder crashes, and from across the alley a trumpeter practices (marvelously portrayed by top-notch jazzer Dave Douglas). If not for Hatori’s enigmatic polemics–“White pepper ice cream / Sweet or spicy? / White pepper ice cream / Which is the first word?”–it could be an alternate sound track for Rear Window.
“Birthday Cake” spits sparks of grinding, infectious punk, “Le Pain Perdu” turns swing into a sinister stomp, and “Sugar Water” drapes fusionoid operatic vocals over sentimental New Age fluff, segueing into a chorus of la-la-la sweetness that Luscious Jackson often attempt but fail to connect with. “Apple” appropriates the breeziness of Brazilian rhythms–the original version featured a brilliantly employed sample from Jorge Ben’s paean to soccer “Ponta de lanca africano (Umbabarauma),” but perhaps because of the thievery of Rod Stewart’s “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy” the sample wasn’t cleared–and melismatic Indian sound track vocals over a hard guitar riff. A cover of “The Candy Man” turns the Sammy Davis Jr. vehicle into a hallucinatory meditation on decadence, especially in the charged way Hatori whispers, “You can even eat the dishes.” “Artichoke” gives half the songwriting credit to traditional Turkish musician Kudsi Erguner, while samples of Duke Ellington, Ennio Morricone, and Machito turn up elsewhere. To her credit Honda not only manages to keep this whirl of additives well blended but through the barrage of sound she intimates the familiar charm of pop music.
The other half of the recipe is Hatori’s delicious vocals. Her broken English delivers plenty of syntactical oddities that reveal themselves as lyrical gems. The duo’s wordplay blurs the line between mistakes and cleverness. A blend of puns and gnarled syntax in “Artichoke” sounds downright poetic:
My heart is like an artichoke
I eat petals myself one by one
Until I feel enough
Until I lose to laugh
When I end to eat the last one
I will tear my drops
I will lose my lips
Beneath the surface attention paid to edibles, Hatori adopts a great variety of voices and characters, from the sad to the happy-go-lucky to the twisted. “Beef Jerky” takes the perspective of a 300-pound guy who likes to fuck horses–“My mom says, ‘You are kinky!’ / Who cares? / I don’t care / A horse’s ass is better than yours”–but the song concludes with some love-borne gentleness: “Let’s eat carrots together until…” “Birthday Cake” has a woman carelessly baking a cake for her son’s 30th birthday: “Add milk of two months ago / ‘It’s moldy…mom, isn’t it?'” The tune’s narrator has no time for such complaints as she invokes classic rites of parenthood: “Shut up and eat / Too bad no bon appetit.” The song sports the line “It’s the shape of love,” and in Cibo Matto’s world food and love are inextricably linked.
“Theme,” the album’s lengthy centerpiece, finds the shy narrator sitting in a Milan cafe, the point of her high heel “stepping on a man’s shadow.” He proceeds to scan her body up and down like a “restaurant menu,” and the meeting causes her blood to go “red like Chianti.” What sounds silly on paper takes on a warm, seductive glow when heard in concert with Honda’s sultry array of samples. The sensual and tactile qualities of food commingle with feelings of romance and lust. With the exception of the title there’s no overt feminist message in the music. But the way in which “Le Pain Perdu” connects stale bread with a dying relationship–“Got to get me out of here / Before it goes stale”–the gender bending of “Know Your Chicken,” and lines like “A woman in the moon is singing to the earth” celebrate many diverse stripes of womanhood.
Cibo Matto are more than just junk food. While the conflation of so many musical strains will satisfy victims of attention deficit disorder, Viva! la Woman’s impressive smorgasbord is provocative as hell. The duo have already attracted loads of media attention, but they stand apart from the endless parade of press darlings: they can’t be reduced to a simple gimmick. Their music grows more resonant with each listen and leaves you hungry for more.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo / Dave Aron.