Food Sexy

Cibo Matto eats to the beat

First, some facts. Cibo Matto (it means "crazy food" in Italian) is two Japanese girls who live in New York: Yuka Honda and Miho Hatori. Cibo Matto has released one single: "Birthday Cake," the A-side, is whiny and bratty, like the Beastie Boys if they were two Japanese girls; "Black Hole Sun," the B-side, is like Yoko Ono covering Soundgarden in French. Cibo Matto's amazing debut album, Viva La Woman is due early next year. Song titles include: "Apple," "Beef Jerky," "Sugar Water," "White Pepper Ice Cream," and "Artichoke."

Edibles are important to Cibo Matto. Their lyrical food fixation may seem wacky, but it's no joke. "Everyone [else] wants to sing about their pain and how sensitive they are," Yuka says via phone, taking a break from recording a cover of "Schoolhouse Rock" with Russell Simins of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion; Miho provides an impromptu rendition of R.E.M.'s "Everybody Hurts," then bursts into laughter. "People like to hear that shit. It's like licking your own scars," Yuka continues. "I like to do it, too, but it's kind of boring." Miho clarifies things: "They sing 'Everybody Hurts'; we sing 'Everybody Farts.' "

Still, Cibo Matto's sound is more cinematic than aromatic. In most songs, a shift from verse to chorus functions like a scene change; other tracks forsake repetitive structures, wandering from one place to another. "We sit around and talk about a song as if it's a movie," Yuka explains. "We discuss the props, the set, and what the plot is about." The sampled music (by Yuka) and the lyrics (by Miho) frequently comment on one another: sentimental strings for words referring to romance, horny horns for words referring to sex. Who does Cibo Matto want to direct their first video? "We have to ask Fellini," Yuka says, "but he's in heaven."

Many Cibo Matto compositions start with a collage of everyday sounds: gates clanging shut; snippets of sidewalk talk and multilingual media chatter; distant sirens; music playing in other rooms. This noise does more than suggest atmosphere: It creates distinct visual settings, usually urban. Yuka's arrangements really are arrangements -- she carefully organizes individual noises in relation to one another, playing with motion and meaning, time and space. Her dub-influenced sampling echoes and enhances a global mix of instruments: chime, gongs, steel drums, guitars, strings, horns, and vintage keyboards. Through her studio trickery, the drone and hum of different types of white noise -- radio static and jet-engine blasts, for example -- melt and meld together.

Introducing herself at the start of most songs, Miho plays a variety of characters. In "Birthday Cake," she's a woman cooking for her son and his wife on his 30th birthday. "Shut up and eat!/ You know my love is sweet," she screeches, adding "Extra sugar/ Extra salt/ Extra oil and MSG" to the meal she's preparing. In the slow, surreal "Sugar Water," she rides a big-eyed camel past buildings that gradually change into coconut trees. Weirdest is "Beef Jerky," which begins, "My weight is 300 pounds/ My favorite is beef jerky." Chanted singsongy, double-dutch style, the chorus goes: "Who cares?/ I don't care/ A horse's ass is better for use." What does it mean? "Miho's singing about this guy who's really big," says Yuka. "So big he likes to fuck horses instead of women." Oh.

In contemporary fast-food America, eating is often more chore than pleasure; in contrast, Cibo Matto takes time to savor flavors. Throughout Viva La Woman, food is either a tool of seduction or a way of expressing affection. A sensual improvement on "Sour Times" by Portishead, "White Pepper Ice Cream" takes a masturbatory delight in taste: "Which is the first taste/ Sweet or spicy?" Miho wonders between spoonfuls. "Artichokes," the LP's final track, uses a creepy, perverse simile. "My heart is like an artichoke," whispers Miho as a giant metronome clicks in between dark, resonant piano tones and muted, distorted trumpet. His hands "like a rusty knife," her lover peels petals off till she's left "burned black" on a pan. "Can you secrete a lemon on me?" she begs at the song's conclusion.

Viva La Woman's food/sex combo truly comes together (ouch) in "Theme," the LP's 10-minute centerpiece. As Miho sits in a Milan cafe, the point of one of her high heels "steps" on a man's shadow. When they make eye contact, he looks her up and down "like a restaurant menu," and the beat momentarily disappears, creating a slow-motion effect. Then, tribal rhythms slowly build and subside, and Miho moves from hot-and-bothered English to excited Japanese, ending with breathy French sweet nothings.

An innovator in a musical area (sampling and programming) that's even more male-dominated than rock, Yuka has encountered some ignorance. "Maybe because I'm a small Japanese woman, after a show, guys often ask me if I program my own sound," she says. "They ask innocently, but I don't think they'd do it if I was a man." Still, album title aside, Viva La Woman's feminism is more implicit than explicit. Cibo Matto occupies a niche-free netherworld somewhere between two other genre-smashing, innovative artists: Pizzicato Five and Tricky. Like P5, Cibo Matto has an international, cosmopolitan sophistication; unlike P5, it emphasizes storytelling over surface satire and style. Like Tricky's Maxinquaye, Viva La Woman turns city sounds into music, but less ominously.

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