To many, Yoko Ono’s musical skills have always been a bit of a joke.
I remember back in high school, listening to Lennon and Ono’s Double Fantasy album — where they trade off singing songs back and forth. We’d regularly fast-forward past the Ono tracks. Well, most of the time. Sometimes we’d listen to them and be flabbergasted by how darned weird they were, and how creepy and strange Ono’s voice was.
I recall one friend hysterically imitating Ono’s orgasmic vocal explosion in “Kiss Kiss Kiss.” Was this supposed to be music? Give me Lennon’s “Watching The Wheels” any day, right? So who was Yoko Ono the musician? Just a novelty act, riding on her famous husband’s coattails? A cult performance artist with more style than substance?
Fade in to 2007, and Ono’s slowly been undergoing a bit of a rethink. At 74, she’s still pushing the envelope, giving her blessing to an audacious set of remix discs of her earlier work. Two recent releases by Astralwerks try to give us a new take on Ono – by stripping her work down to its core, and entirely rethinking it. A variety of artists including Cat Power, The Pet Shop Boys, and Antony and the Johnsons were asked to choose songs from Ono’s catalog to rework however they saw fit.
The result is an all-star cast over two often-excellent CDs, Yes, I’m A Witch and Open Your Box. Far more so than The Beatles’ rather too reverent “modernization” Love, these two Ono discs succeed at “remixing” the old into an ultra-modern take on her tunes.
Ono’s music is far less sacred to most listeners than the Beatles of course, and perhaps that’s what makes it so ripe for reinterpretation. It’s a kind of musical transplant, lifting Ono’s vocals and grafting them onto club-friendly beats and rhythms. Like any such alchemy, some of this stuff works better than others. But what’s surprising is mostly how well it all works.
Ono’s stoic singing voice and occasional banshee wails are nicely tailored for the dance floor. One of the limitations of her earlier work was the music behind her vocals, which could be cartoony. Here, it’s fleshed out. The broad canvases often do Ono’s work a world of good. True, the results can sometimes be a bit dire – I couldn’t really get behind the simple message of “Give Peace A Chance” being turned into some kind of skittery robotic rave by DJ Dan, for example.
The two discs take very different routes to Ono’s music. Yes, I’m A Witch (with its clever title addressing the question of Ono’s reputation head-on), is a more rock-based, duet-themed album; while the rowdy amped-up remixes of Open Your Box are aimed squarely at the dance music crowd.
For the adventurous listener, highlights abound. On Witch, there’s the droning grind of Spiritualized’s Jason Pierce reworking “Walking On Thin Ice” into an epic that evokes My Bloody Valentine, or the utterly lovely duet of Cat Power and Ono on “Revelations.” On Box, the Pet Shop Boys give a chrome sheen of their own to “Thin Ice,” while the pounding beats of the Morel Pink Noise vocal mix of “Give Me Something” make one of Ono’s kookier songs into something approaching an anthem.
The loving tributes and enjoyable diversity of Witch is probably the disc to start with unless dance music is more your forte. Box rocks harder and has some excellent beats, but is a little less faithful to Ono’s music. At least that’s how it seemed to me.
Ono’s legacy will always be tied to Lennon’s, of course. But the brave new worlds of Open Your Box and Yes, I’m A Witch help make a case for her as a singular talent of her own, and one who can still be relevant in the new millennium.