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Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2014

Cibo Matto: Hotel Valentine (Chimera Music)

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During the 1990s, Cibo Matto became part of the New York City indie-rock scene, yet also—because members Yuka C. Honda and Miho Hatori sounded like the Japanese expatriates they were—stood apart from it.

This hip distance gave the duo creative latitude: its first album, 1996’s Viva! La Woman, exalted the CB name (Italian for “food madness”) via culinary-themed songs and inventive abrasiveness, spicy as curry and delicate as a soufflé. The follow-up, 1999’s Stereo Type A, refused to duplicate the recipe and came up with an undeniable R&B confection, “Moonchild.”

Fifteen years later, the third Cibo Matto LP, Hotel Valentine, suggests that Hatori and Honda were never concerned with impressing hipsters or notching a hit; they remain fixated on turning tangents into routes, unfolding new flowers of meaning from old buds of language, and growing groovy flesh on computer-sketched skeletons of rhythm.

True to its title and February release date, CB’s third album is romantic and conceptual, although the cartoon-pink neon hearts are faded and fizzing and the tales told in the rooms and corridors feel more spectral than solid. Hatori still sings and raps in English that sounds less broken, or fragmented, than it really is; Honda still creates melodic and rhythmic patterns that are simultaneously familiar and unpredictable. Something has replaced the duo’s early brashness, but it doesn’t sound as dull as a term like “maturity.” It’s just…different.

And stranger: rants about chicken and musings about urban life were less elusive than the elevator-shaft funk of “10th Floor Ghost Girl,” the electronic static rolling a charge through the spooked surface of “Empty Pool,” or the alternately philosophical and urgent horns brightening the noirish green of “Emerald Tuesday.”

Hotel guests like Reggie Watts and Wilco guitarist Nels Cline arrive and depart, but their contributions linger. The album also lingers, in a pleasurable unsettling way. Hotel Valentine lets listeners check out; it never quite lets them leave.