Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Survivor

Yoko Ono (Art-Rock Remix)
LP: Yes, I'm a Witch (2007)

The Rant

If anyone had told me at the start of this year that Yoko Ono’s new album would be a firm favorite, I'd have been skeptical to say the least.

Although I 'm a Yoko fan, I’ll admit that some of her recordings can be, erm, challenging. Easy listening she ain’t.

I’ll go to my grave insisting, though, that Ono produced some genuinely groundbreaking music on early LPs such as Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band, Fly and Approximately Infinite Universe (containing the exquisite and heartbreaking Death of Samantha), . And the album following John Lennon’s murder, Season of Glass, is as raw and harrowing an expression of pain as you could imagine.

If that album’s cover, featuring her dead husband’s cracked, bloody spectacles, pushes the boundaries of taste, there’s never any denying Ono’s fearless approach to music-making. For that alone she deserves respect.

I also happen to dig Yoko’s conceptual art, even if one snobbish New York critic caustically insists that “she’s contributed nothing.”

Oh really?

Are we talking the same Yoko Ono here?

That's: key member of the Fluxus movement, innovative performance artist, collaborator with John Cage and Ornette Coleman? Creator of a primal shamanic energy which predates punk feminism? Women's/gay rights advocate who alerted her famous husband - and by extension millions of fans worldwide - to issues of sexual oppression and equality?

Oh yeah. Almost forgot. She happened to be the partner and intellectual foil of the sixties’ greatest icon, and the partial or complete inspiration behind many of his late-period Beatle masterpieces, including Revolution, Revolution 9, (the world’s biggest selling avant-garde recording), Happiness is a Warm Gun, Julia, Don’t Let Me Down, I Want You (She’s so Heavy), Come Together, and The Ballad of John and Yoko, not to mention Imagine (which she co-wrote, according to her hubby) and other solo classics by Doctor Winston O’Boogie.

Having had the temerity to hook an ex-Beatle, Yoko was then forced to endure hostile racist/sexist diatribes from the media - Esquire magazine offensively described her as "John Rennon's Excrusive Gloupie - and assorted Apple Scruffs. She bore this backbiting with astonishing calmness and dignity.

To sum up, she’s a larger than life Asian female who’s made it in a white man’s world and is easily the most famous Japanese woman/artist/musician of all time.

So excuse me, Yoko-haters: which part of inspirational-confrontational multi-talented counter-cultural icon don’t you understand?

I'll admit John and Yoko could bring out the worst in each other. Their insistence that great art should by definition be self-referential was dubious, and they shamelessly documented and mythologized their relationship to the point of egomaniacal obsession. All the squalling and bags and tedious audio-verite albums could get irritating.

But why don’t you try being an iconic genius surrounded by sycophants and hangers-on for a decade and seeif you manage to hold on to your sanity?

Anyway: War is Over - If You Want it. What the hell’s wrong with that?

And while I think about it, let me get one more Beatle bee out of my bonnet: Yoko Ono did not break up the moptops. The seeds of the fabs’ destruction had been sown way before she came on the scene.

So that's that. Wanna take it outside?

The Record

OK. Enough of the ranting and let me get to this album, because it’s a cracker. In fact, IMHO it’s one of the best remix efforts you are going to hear.

Due to her inherent weirdness Yoko is and has long been an obvious and suitable candidate for bricolage, there being so many elements of pop culture, conceptual art and activism in her oeuvre for sound boffins to dabble with. I’ve often felt, in any case, that the rock idiom has not always been the one most suited to her style. Elephants Memory and The Plastic Ono Band, who were recruited for her early works, were essentially Lennon cohorts who played on Yoko’s stuff - at times grudgingly - as a sideline.

If one mark of a successful artist is surrounding yourself with talented contributors, Yoko's collaborators on Yes, I'm a Witch do her proud. The original masters have been pared down to her vocal tracks then rebuilt from the ground up by an impressive gaggle of modern pop luminaries, including Porcupine Tree, Flaming Lips, DJ Spooky and Peaches.

Crucially, the album manages to interweave many flavors of popular music - hip-hop/electronica/rock/pop - without sounding ephemeral or forced. There's a lot of variety on this record, including moments of tenderness, aggression and pure fun, and I think a lot of folks are gonna be pleasantly surprised.

One highlight is Porcupine Tree’s version of Yoko’s classic Death of Samantha, a superb reworking which elevates the song to even more poignant and magnificent heights. Just listen to the sparkling guitars and gorgeous wash of sound on this version. As a big time Stephen Wilson/No Man/Porcupine Tree fan, I’m delighted that this track is going to introduce his name to new listeners.

In a completely different vein, Shitake Monkey’s version of O'Oh is a loping, fun-filled groove, while Jason ‘Spiritualized’ Pierce’s stunning reassembly of Ono's classic Walking on Thin Ice strips the song of its familiar disco context, instead choosing to focus on its emotional terrain. Then there's Anthony Hegarty's delicate and lovely arrangement of Toyboat, underlining the theme of vulnerability which has always been present in Yoko's music.

Though this record is filled with excellent collaborations, my favorite is perhaps The Brother Brothers rock-out mix of the title track. Yoko’s voice is one of strength and purity, and it’s great – not to mention very catchy - to hear her singing “Yes, I’m a witch, I’m a bitch, I don’t care what you say," and symbolically raising a middle finger to her detractors.

John Lennon predicted decades ago that Yoko Ono would one day receive due recognition, and on this LP she cashes in her chips. Yes, I’m a Witch is a catchy, groovy, intoxicating brew which represents complete vindication for Ono and her superb cast of collaborators. A true original, an icon, and a survivor, the dragon lady - 74 years young - has come up with her best ever elpee by quite a stretch.


Cushion Meg said...

Your praise makes Ono's latest song sound so superb that I feel like listening to that. But she is really a witch!

Shiffi Le Soy said...

Hello Cushion Meg! Well, I think she's a White Witch!