Back in the late ’90s, when the likes of Britney Spears and N’Sync ruled the airwaves, Cibo Matto was a breath of fresh air. Amidst the jungle of bubblegum that surrounded them at the time, the duo’s odd, playful mixture of trip-hop and shibuya-kei stood out. There was nothing quite like it out there.
But now, we’re in 2014, and the musical landscape has changed. With the indie revolution just under a decade ago, what constitutes the “mainstream” is more eclectic than ever before. Sure, a band like Cibo Matto will never have a top-40 hit, but neither would they be doomed to obscurity today.
This raises the question of whether a Japanese-American experimental pop duo that was semi-popular fifteen years ago can be relevant in today’s music scene. Honestly, I don’t think so. But I also don’t think that matters.
It’s apparent from opening track “Check In” that Cibo Matto has grown up. They still have a bit of a playful streak, but it’s clear that the goofy raps about birthday cake and wasabi are no more. Hotel Valentine is a concept album about a haunted hotel, and it begs to be taken at least semi-seriously. The music is softer and more contemplative this around, and it’s heavily influenced by lounge music, alternative jazz, and old film scores. Don’t expect any wacky proto-metal ditties like Stereo Type A’s “Blue Train.” Hotel Valentine is very much an “adult” album.
It’s also a more nuanced album than its predecessors. The genre-hopping feels less calculated this time around, as if the direction of the songs is shaping their genres, instead of the other way around. Cibo Matto employs a great deal of tasteful restraint, weaving a barely audible saxophone line in “Emerald Tuesday” and verging on spoken-word music in “Lobby.”
Hotel Valentine is musically well-crafted on the whole, full of unexpected sonic delights. But the same is true of many other albums in the current musical climate. Cibo Matto isn’t the only band releasing alternative pop these days. Bands like Chvrches and Miike Snow provide more immediate – if more ephemeral – excitement. So does Cibo Matto even have a point anymore?
I’d argue that they do. They’re no longer influential in today’s musical landscape, but their music is catchy and has a great deal of staying power. In a sense, their relevance doesn’t matter. What does matter is that their music is good, and at its core, despite some pacing problems with too many laid-back songs in a row in the latter half of the album, I can’t deny that Hotel Valentine is good music.
So why does Hotel Valentine sound like it’s overcompensating and trying to appear relevant? I think it has to do with the album’s concept: the idea of a haunted hotel is ripe for storytelling possibilities. It can be used to comment on a wide range of issues, including spirituality, death, and voyeurism. But Cibo Matto chooses not to really tell stories on Hotel Valentine. The songs seem more like vignettes about ghosts and everyday hotel events, juxtaposing the supernatural against the hopelessly mundane. There’s no real commentary, no underlying message. The haunted hotel seems like nothing more than a motif, an interesting but ultimately unfulfilling attempt to tie the entire album together. The concept isn’t bad; it’s just conspicuous by the band’s failure to really capitalize on it. Even the obvious juxtaposition of the supernatural and the mundane goes uncommented upon.
The thing is, relevance is overrated. It’s a stupid concept employed by music critics in a vain attempt to write musical history as it happens, rather than with the benefit of hindsight. Chasing after it is a fool’s errand. I just can’t help but think that Cibo Matto wanted this record to feel relevant. The end result is that Hotel Valentine is caught in an awkward limbo between being a really great album and an album that could have been so much more. It’s both a triumph and a disappointment, and it’s probably best appreciated not for what it could have been, but what it is: the rare reunion album that doesn’t suck ass.