Much like the recent comeback by contemporary Luscious Jackson, it’s hard to tell if Cibo Matto’s return is motivated by genuine rediscovery of ’90s funky female trip-hop groups, or if the duo is just working through a musical midlife crisis. That’s no knock to Miho Hatori and Yuka Honda’s perseverance. For an act that made its mark with spaced-out grooves, breakbeat quasi-rapping, and lyrics featuring frequent culinary references (“Cibo Matto” is Italian for “crazy food,” a concept best exemplified in the video for “Know Your Chicken”), Cibo Matto has done a remarkable job avoiding forgotten-novelty status and remaining a legitimate presence in the industry. In addition to various solo efforts and collaborations in the 15 years since 1999’s sophomore album Stereo Type A, Hatori and Honda have worked with everyone from Gorillaz to Martha Wainwright to Yoko Ono. (The two even did their part awkwardly shaking it along with a grab bag of other random celebs in Ono’s “Bad Dancer” video last year.) But, while the new Hotel Valentine certainly shows flashes of the diverse influences they’ve accumulated in their time apart, without a coherent plan of attack for cobbling those ideas together, the record is mostly a mishmash of outdated art-pop that falls far short of achieving any modern relevance.
To be fair, the album’s sonic patchwork is the intended result, meant to revolve around a conceptual storyline (something involving ghosts in a hotel who fall in love) described by Hatori as a “cinematic bricolage.” That means tracks of stylistic miscellany such as “MFN,” which abruptly shifts between bass-thumping synth-funk, ethereal crooning backed by comedian/musician Reggie Watts, and interjected verses of low-quality rapping about room service. That Cibo Matto is still as weird as ever is a positive (otherwise, what’s the point, really), but the whimsical genre-jumping feels a bit tired; the rapid experimentation that came off as vibrant and brash in the ’90s alt-music scene doesn’t accomplish nearly as much in 2014. Meanwhile, though the duo does show occasional flashes of matured songwriting—particularly on the smoky, jazz-inflected title track, which slinks to the hypnotic beat of world percussion through hazy clouds of electronica—one would think that their composition skills would have developed a little more in the interim. Hotel Valentine is a fine addition to the limited canon of colorful post-punk all-girl trip-hop records, but can’t avoid sounding like the relic that label implies.