Yoko Ono is on a mission -- still
The performance artist, with her revived Plastic Ono Band and a new
album, is bent on exploding the barriers among music styles. Oh, and
if it does well on the charts, all the better.
By Randy Lewis
September 22, 2009
London's annual Meltdown Festival is one of the U.K.'s hippest
events. A specially selected curator invites artists he or she wishes
to showcase, typically the more adventurous, the better. This year,
free-jazz innovator Ornette Coleman assembled a stellar lineup of
genre-defining and defying acts -- Patti Smith, James Blood Ulmer,
the Roots, Baaba Maal and the Master Musicians of Jajouka, among them.
Some of the strongest response, however, was reserved for a
76-year-old performance artist whose blood-curdling singing has been
testing audiences' limits for decades. That would be Yoko Ono, who
resurrected the name of the Plastic Ono Band for the group that
backed her at Meltdown.
The ensemble included her son, Sean Lennon, guitarist Mark Ronson,
singer Antony Hegarty, the Japanese experimental pop group Cornelius
and Coleman himself, all of whom also appear on her latest album,
"Between My Head and the Sky," out today.
"I didn't expect that kind of big applause and all that warm
reception," she said, speaking recently from New York.
Ono has spent most of her career taking wild risks, as she is with
the new version of the Plastic Ono Band. She and John Lennon
originally gave that moniker to the group that backed them in concert
in Toronto in 1969, a performance that was noteworthy as Lennon's
public debut playing with anyone other than the Beatles.
Yoko OnoYoko OnoYoko OnoOno said she opted to revive the name now,
because she was interested in exploding the borders that separate
styles of music, a creative mission similar to the one that drove her
nearly four decades ago.
"That time, I really felt totally out about the fact I'm going to
change the world," she said. "I was really intent on breaking the
sound barrier. This one is breaking a lot of forms too. It's a
hodgepodge, like real life. It's a very delicate way of expressing
controversial aspects of music."
The new collection is nothing if not eclectic. There's the
percolating dance pop of "The Sun Is Down!," with its repeated
minimalist lyric phrases paralleling a patchwork of vocalization
snippets; the haunting late-night jazz balladry of "Memory of
Footsteps"; and "Moving Mountains," an instrumental experiment in
ambient sounds and rhythm.
Ono's lyrics for "Waiting for the D Train," another track that serves
as a reminder of the influence her early music had on
late-'70s/early-'80s new wave, sound as meticulously crafted as a haiku:
Cueing for my bread
Passing many tunnels
In the cold winter morning
Looking for the end
Yoko OnoOno's work consistently has focused on defying convention,
and she often makes her audience an integral part of her performance
art pieces. For her "Wish Tree" installation, which recently spent
time in Pasadena, visitors attached thousands of handwritten messages
to the branches of 21 crape myrtle trees set up in the courtyard of
an outdoor shopping center.
Because she has been so fascinated with art for art's sake, it's
intriguing to hear her say she also hopes her new music will do well
on the charts.
"People joke about how it's like soldiers getting a medal," she said
of scoring a hit. "But it's good to have a medal. It encourages you."
Her vocals, though, haven't become any more accessible with this
newest endeavor. Of her Meltdown performance, a critic for the
Guardian wrote: "There are many reasons to wish the 76-year-old Ono
well, including her underrated songwriting abilities, her long
track-record of avant-garde mischief and her indefatigable good
nature in the face of four decades of abuse from Beatles fans, but
her vocal stylings are not among them."
In an odd twist of fate, "Between My Head and the Sky" was recorded
in the same studio where Ono and Lennon recorded 1980's "Double
Fantasy" album, released shortly before Lennon was gunned down by
Mark David Chapman, a deranged fan. The name of the facility had
changed, and Ono said she didn't initially realize it was the same
location. "It was very uncanny," she said. "We did the basic tracks
in six days -- the same thing happened with 'Double Fantasy.' We had
a week to do the basic tracks."
Her son with Lennon, Sean, designed the album's cover, a striking
photo of Ono seated at a piano, in a top hat and dark glasses, with
what appears to be a spray of lotus blossoms blurred in the foreground.
"John and I always thought of our own covers," she said. "This time,
Sean said, 'I'm doing it,' and he did it. He's an artist too. I
didn't want to be that overwhelming Yoko Ono trying to control the scene.
"I'm a control freak, in a way, especially with my artwork and music.
This time, I had to get to another level, a spiritual level of
understanding. It's out of love for my son. He's a good one; he has
his own ideas."
Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band 'Between My Head and the Sky'
By Joe Gross
September 22, 2009
Yoko Ono/ Plastic Ono Band
'Between My Head and the Sky'
At this point, the only music fans who have heard Yoko Ono's
extraordinary 40-year body of work and don't recognize her as an
innovator are pretty easily slotted into two groups: folks who are
still fuzzy on women's suffrage and Beatles loons who still blame her
for their inevitable disintegration. Even if you don't have much use
for her often extreme music, Ono was there before most folks, pushing
envelopes in art and sound and doing it as a woman whom, for a while
there, the entire planet seemed to hate just kind of on spec.
This is the first Ono album released with the Plastic Ono name since
1973's proto-feminist screed "Feeling the Space" and her first
all-new studio effort since 1995's alt-rock infused "Rising." This
new model Ono Band includes her son Sean Lennon, Yuka Honda from Cibo
Matto, and electronic-dance savant Keigo Oyamada, a.k.a Cornelius.
"Between My Head…" rolodexes 40 years of Ono's tricks. "Waiting for
the D Trains" opens the album with spikey, no wave guitar flail and
wordless yells, while "The Sun is Down" would be welcome at any rave.
The jazz on "Ask the Elephant" owes plenty to Ornette Coleman's
harmelodic funk, while "Memory of Footsteps" and "Unun. To" (the
latter in Japanese) are meditative, small group sketches which are
alternately thoughtful and distressingly Steve Allen-ish. "Calling"
could be a leftover "White Album" jam from a particularly "out"
afternoon or a Sonic Youth rehearsal tape. In no way is this a bad
thing. In no way is almost any of this album a bad thing it some of
the most vigorous, vital rock music a 76-year-old has ever produced.