As the Beatles–Lennon furore recedes into the mists of pop culture past, the much-maligned Yoko Ono has emerged from the scrum to be recognised as an important avant-garde artist “in her own right” (to coin a condescending phrase). The re-evaluation of her challenging music continues with this engaging album, a collection of remixes by some painfully hip contemporary musicians (among them Peaches, Le Tigre, Antony, Spiritualized’s Jason Pierce, The Flaming Lips, the Polyphonic Spree and The Apples in Stereo) that pays homage to her influence and clearly aims to introduce her work to a new generation. (A similar compilation of dance mixes of her songs is also available.) The choice of material on Yes, I’m A Witch spans Ono’s career from her early experimental work with Lennon to her solo albums of the 1970s and ‘80s, with the artists retaining Ono’s original vocals and creating new backing tracks for them. The result is a predictably uneven but nonetheless highly enjoyable album that makes a compelling case for the accomplishments of a composer who was clearly way ahead of her time.
Following Public Enemy producer Hank Shocklee’s brisk ‘Witch Shocktronica Intro’, proceedings get off to an energetic start with busy, electro-techno reworkings of ‘Kiss Kiss Kiss’ and ‘O’oh’, from Peaches and Shitake Monkey, respectively, the latter benefiting from a judicious sample of the opening riff of Grover Washington Jr.’s ‘Mister Magic’. Blow Up effectively transport ‘Everyman…Everywoman’ into the realm of psychedelic rock, and though the already-unsubtle empowerment anthem ‘Sisters O Sisters’ doesn’t really profit from Le Tigre’s addition of a little megaphone agitation (“Women united will never be defeated!”), the song remains a pleasing rabble-rouser. However, it’s Porcupine Tree’s sparsely atmospheric take on ‘Death Of Samantha’ — and the chilling shudder in Ono’s voice as she sings “Every day I thank God I’m such a cool chick baby” — that moves this album into more emotional and rewarding terrain.
Those more familiar with the (arguably sexist and racist) media image of Ono than her musical output will be surprised to find that there’s very little which is scary or forbidding about this music. The record may open with the heavy irony of Ono declaring “Yes, I’m a witch / I’m a bitch… / I don’t care what they say”, but much of the material is appealing, inviting and even consoling, many of the lyrics featuring positive statements that sometimes veer perilously close to a Hallmark greeting card. This is particularly true of ‘Revelations’ with its succession of positive-thinking mantras and earnest benedictions: “You are a sea of goodness / you are a sea of love… / bless you for what you are.” But the elegant sparseness of Cat Power’s treatment transcends the banality of the sentiment and turns the song into a powerful piano-led duet.
Other highlights include The Apples in Stereo’s soaring, majestic take on ‘No One Can See Me Like You Do’ and Jason Pierce’s feedback-drenched makeover of ‘Walking On Thin Ice’. Elsewhere, Antony and Hahn Rowe do well by ‘Toyboat’, while the Flaming Lips take on ‘Cambridge 1969′ with characteristic brio. The album ends on a reflective note with Craig Armstrong’s reworking of ‘Shiranakatta (I Didn’t Know)’, a song of poignant regret punctuated by Ono’s heartrending inquiry: “why didn’t you tell me you were in pain? / I would have come to you so quickly.”
Throughout Yes, I’m A Witch there’s a directness and immediacy to Ono’s writing and singing that pierces your defences. If you’re a fan already then this album — an amalgam of remix disc, tribute record and collaborative project — will provide you with the pleasure and excitement of rediscovery. If you’re a newcomer, it will challenge any lingering prejudices you may have about Ono’s work and leave you eager to hear more.
[EMI; March 6, 2007]