The animosity directed toward Yoko Ono is one of rock n’ roll’s seemingly inarguable givens, like covering Robert Johnson songs, referring to Elvis as “The King,” or the way multi-disc concept albums always suck. Even though Ono was a prominent figure in the art world (collaborating with John Cage, LaMonte Young, and other big-shots), when her future husband John Lennon was still getting bowl cuts and ripping off The Kinks, all complimentary reviews of Ono’s work inevitably began defensively. Ono’s output before, during, and after her relationship with Lennon is brave, inventive, and pioneering, but it’s also inarguably annoying. Her voice is atonal, and though her lyrics are often rich in imagery, their syntax is as jagged as the Glassworks rhythms and synths that dominate anything post-Plastic Ono Band. Never mind that she broke up The Beatles: her greatest crime against humanity was inventing electro-clash.
Ono’s already been the subject of a tribute album (1984’s Every Man Has A Woman) and a high-profile remix album (the Rising Mixes EP from 1996), and the Walking On Thin Ice compilation is a fine distillation of her career and is readily available for about three bucks on half.com. Astralwerks’s Yes, I’m a Witch, a best-of/tribute album/remix bricolage where individual artists remix Ono’s vocals over their own compositions, seems as unnecessary as a record can get. Yet Ono skeptics and fans alike will be unnerved by the disc’s excellence. The contributors to this project include members of Spiritualized, The Flaming Lips, Antony And The Johnsons, Le Tigre, and other high profile acts. Just exactly how much Ono influenced some of these artists is unclear (Hank Shocklee, from Public Enemy’s production team The Bomb Squad, produces two tracks on Witch) and a few phone it in. But, for the most part, these tracks are reverent but not gushy pop revisions of Ono’s back catalog.
The first half of the collection is dominated by dance-based acts. Peaches gives the flirty “Kiss Kiss Kiss” a lo-fi grime beat with Casio handclaps and buzzes and, somewhat predictably for the dirtiest mind in show business, jacks up the vocals during the bridge to emphasize Ono’s orgiastic moans. Le Tigre takes on “Sisters O Sisters,” and more or less re-imagines the track as a Le Tigre song, which is forgivable since Ono’s nasal whine is nearly indiscernible from Kathleen Hannah’s. Packed with some of the catchiest sloganeering (“Women! United! Will Never! Be Defeated!”) since Country Joe And The Fish rocked Woodstock, it’s one of the group’s best tracks since their debut.
As far as psychedelia goes—and how could it go unrepresented on an ode to Ono?—the Apples In Stereo version of the lovely “Nobody Sees Me Like You Do” makes a good thing greater, thanks to wisely eluding the grating vocals of their frontman Robert Schneider. Both the Polyphonic Spree and Spiritualized’s Jason Pierce resort to their usual tricks: the Spree’s explosive blend of church choirs and “Aqualung”-style fluting on “You And I” is particularly successful; unfortunately, Pierce overcomplicates “Walking On Thin Ice,” one of Ono’s starkest songs about Lennon’s death, with noisy fuzz-boxes and organs. Ironically, the sound of Ono crying on a background track is far more pleasant. Not that keeping it simple always pans out on Witch. Cat Power’s Natalie Cole faux-duet on “Revelations”—made up of just two voices and Chan Marshall’s piano—is unbelievably boring. Other stinkers include the Flaming Lips’ “Cambridge 1969/2007,” which buries Ono’s vocals in the band’s usual uninspired and repetitive twee-sludge.
But the hit-to-miss ratio is high. “Toyboat,” originally from Season Of Glass (the album with Lennon’s blood-splattered glasses on the cover), is extraordinary—the falsetto chorus is Ono’s finest vocal performance, Hahn Rowe’s reverberating clicks and beeps recall Vespertine, and Antony’s oohs and ahhs are heavenly. Describing her performance art, Ono claimed her goal was “extrication from various sensory perceptions.” Yes, I Am A Witch is an extrication in and of itself, transforming Ono’s back catalog by making it more palatable and surmounting the Breaking-Up-The-Beatles question by enlisting a generation’s worth of her devotees. As far as sensory perceptions go, if you never admired Yoko Ono before you still won’t find her work transcendent. But the songs on Witch are unquestionably superb.