Ketchup and Soy Sauce

Cibo Matto gets out of the kitchen and fries up the national prize

Here's the greatest thing about being in a band signed to a major label: There's always someone around -- a publicist, a manager, some underpaid lackey -- willing to take care of anything you need. Are you hungry? Get the manager to fetch you some lunch, even if that just means some dry sourdough toast with a side of jam and butter. Feeling a bit thirsty? Well, there's always the publicist who's more than happy to get you some hot tea with lemon and, sure, a taste of honey.

"And if they don't have honey," offers Yuka Honda, as though speaking to a waiter, "I take milk and sugar."

It's rather magnificent, all the more so when the musicians do their bidding with such grace -- as though this is the way it's supposed to be, the way it will always be.

Getting out the welcome matto: Yuka Honda and Miho Hatori tear the roof off the sucka.
Getting out the welcome matto: Yuka Honda and Miho Hatori tear the roof off the sucka.

"We don't even have to lift our fingers now," Honda is saying, as Cibo Matto's manager makes a dash to the Austin Hyatt Regency's restaurant to grab Honda and partner Miho Hatori a late-morning snack. Honda and Hatori, sitting in the hotel's oversize rock-and-waterfall lobby, giggle slightly, as though embarrassed...and yet not. Imagine if they were actually famous to people besides other musicians and rock critics. Good God, imagine if they were Cibo Matto's bass player -- some dude named Sean Lennon, with whom Honda also shares her New York apartment. If only.

But as it is, Cibo Matto exists between the cracks of an East Village sidewalk; they're pop stars making noise just above the underground, despite the Warner Bros. expense checks. Such is the fate that awaits two Japanese-by-way-of-Manhattan women whose albums are so scattered and promiscuous they make Beck sound like Dan Seals. Imagine the sound of a thousand record stores burned to the ground, their melted vinyl collected onto a single platter spun by a downtown DJ at 3 a.m. Theirs is a giddy sort of disco-ball dissonance, an anime soundtrack for the loft crowd -- especially the band's brand-new Stereotype A, which pogos from pet-sound pop to crazy-happy fun-time metal to bossa nova wave in the time it takes to finish half of a single song.

Long gone is the wacky food talk that made their 1996 debut, VIVA! La Woman, a fave among the insider-outsider crowd; no more rickety half-hop songs about eating your birthday cake and knowing your chicken and washing down your white-pepper ice cream with sugar water. No more Sammy Davis Jr. "Candy Man" nods; no more beef jerky wink-winks. Stereotype A is what happens when two women realize that their accidental band has turned into a career and that the joke's funnier than the punch line. About the silliest Stereotype A gets is when Miho and Yuka try to clean themselves of "The Lint of Love," and even then, the wisecrack seems only, well, a little bit wise. "Human beings always hard to believe," the women sing over some time-warp funk bought at a garage sale in 1978. "We can't avoid the lint of love / And you got to know how to take it away."

It's little surprise that Stereotype A has been less the critics' darling than its predecessor; no longer are Hatori and Honda these cute little exotic oddities peddling their out-of-nowhere, cut-and-paste art project. Honda is Sean Lennon's girlfriend and producer; both she and Hatori are dear friends with Yoko Ono, and they now hang with the likes of the Beastie Boys and Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. And the new record -- produced this time by Honda, as opposed to the ubiquitous Mitchell Froom -- features nothing but live musicians, among them Lennon; Beck-Tom Waits sidekick Smokey Hormel and Marc Ribot on guitar; and John Medeski and Billy Martin of Medeski, Martin & Wood.

The result is a far more organic record made up of songs that ebb and flow, move and groove, inhale and exhale. Long gone are the choppy, cutesy Duke Ellington, Ennio Morricone, and Machito samples that made VIVA! La Woman an exercise in thrift-store robbing. Stereotype A, despite its punkier tangents, almost flirts with being a new-wave R&B record -- something TLC might have made if they lived in New York City and played with John Zorn on weekends. Actually, it's anything you want it to be, a disc that reveals as little or as much of itself as you're willing to give back. Then, that's always the case when American culture is deciphered and distributed by foreigners who come here without prejudice or a sense of boundaries. They don't think about music in terms of genres, only that it's American -- one nation under a groove.

"When we did VIVA! La Woman, I had so many questions about how we crossed over genres, and I've been kind of thinking lately that we just grew up that way," Honda says, nibbling on some Texas toast, a name she finds ironic and not a little hilarious. "I think when you are in America, music has so many things attached to it -- you know, the lifestyle, race, politics, what you represent. You like certain music, so you belong to a certain group of people. Music suddenly represents everything, and it's really conservative.

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