Ice cream never seemed so unappetizing. But the world of music should be grateful to wacky Japanese rappers Cibo Matto for introducing us to this alternative dietary outlook. Food in music — anywhere, really — usually means “good”: it’s sensual and, well, it (usually) tastes good. But Viva! La Woman allows us to look deeper into our palates by reinventing the realm of culinary imagery.
This deeper look arises from the dark musical tone, which contrasts with its seemingly goofy gastronomic theme. The record strays very little from simplistic, somewhat choppy, percussion arrangements, but it uses the conservative background as a mixing bowl for eerie trumpet snippets and slicing keyboard clips engineered by Yuka Honda and the whispering, singing, screaming and rapping of lead singer Miho Hatori.
Miho and Yuka, both of whom had recently relocated from Japan, met in New York’s Lower East Side in 1994. Soon the two began to experiment with various musical styles. After every practice and performance, they indulged themselves by sampling the diverse selection of foods in the city. Over these meals, they formed the idea of Cibo Matto (Italian for “food madness”). The two referenced foods in everyday conversation as well as their songwriting because of their initial difficulty with mastering the English language. Ironically enough, these expressions reveal a greater — or at least, more creative — hold on the language than most native speakers have.
Their style is reminiscent of the Doors without the droning organ and the substitution of Miho’s broken English and constant shrieking for Jim Morrison’s howls. The baselines are Dido-ish and the trumpets resemble Cake.
The songs undertake the goal of explaining some human experience, physical or emotional, through descriptions of various foods. The actual foods often seem to have little to do with the true meaning of the lyrics but serve as veiled references or metaphors for the true subjects of the songs; “White Pepper Ice Cream,” for example, is an oblique reference to a bodily fluid that can indeed only be obliquely referenced.
Each track has a distinctive sound: “Beef Jerky,” “Know Your Chicken” and “Birthday Cake” are upbeat, with catchy hooks and more lighthearted emotional commentary. The intense sensuality and meaning is best displayed in “Artichoke”: though at first an extended whining session, it turns into a quite poetic end to the album. For the easily confused, “Theme” helpfully describes the, well, theme of the album with two strangers meeting in a coffee shop followed by the sounds of creaking bedposts and ending with soft whispers.
Like the ice cream example, some of the symbolism is a little disturbing — maybe you don’t WANT to connect ice cream with — that — and sometimes too intellectual for casual listening. But the music is captivating enough to help you overcome this distaste. It is also questionable whether a theme such as food in music can continue to capture fans; the album has had success only outside the mainstream in the six years since its release. The concept is creative and revolutionary, but alas, food and music are two very different art forms, which may thrive better separately.
Viva! La Woman is not necessarily road trip or club material — its curiosity value gets downright annoying upon repeated listenings. It is, however, insightful, creative and worth listening to at least once.