If Yoko Ono is truly a witch as she professes, then her new collaboration with some of today’s hippest artists is a haunting mixed-genre brew. Yes, I’m a Witch, which features collaborations with Cat Power, the Flaming Lips, Peaches, and others, comes as the hip music world and art world begin to take a second look at the woman unfairly blamed for breaking up the Beatles. For those unready to unravel her Dada-inspired artwork, this new release is the best way to approach this notoriously difficult artist. Think all the shrieking and eccentricities of Bjork without the images of a precocious young woman whispering “Shhh”.
Unlike the uneven and often puzzling cover album to tribute Serge Gainsbourg, Yes, I’m a Witch allows others to rework and sample the Japanese songstress’ highlights. Public Enemy producer Hank Shocklee starts it off with a short pulsating techno number, that transitions well into Peaches’ electro “Kiss, Kiss, Kiss”. If anybody can bring out the sexuality of Ono, it is the tongue-in-ear sexual shocker. The trio of Shitake Monkey, who helped make Jennifer Lopez listenable, tweaks the knobs on the downtempo groove “O’Oh”. The synth-pop dabblers’ latest reworking shows how Ono’s voice has the needed edge for electronica dance numbers. Ono’s more recent work, such as Starpeace, takes a good deal of patience for the average listener and the six-disc Onobox isn’t an introduction but a grueling tutorial. But previous collaborations with remixers on Rising E.P. have the potential to move even those who refer to her as “the bitch that broke up the Beatles” to bob their heads. Turntable savant DJ Spooky picks up the mantle from previous collaborator Pet Shop Boys. The trip-hop “The Rising” gives the generally light album a chance to curl back into its darker dimensions. Yoko sounds like she is choking, but a little claustrophobia helps balance out over jovial tracks like “You and I” with the Polyphonic Spree.
Reworking of songs instead of straight covers is the key of the album’s success. This is because Ono’s feminist messages are a bit dated and are not nearly as profound as they were two decades ago. Fortunately, lyrics don’t need to be revolutionary with a synth or trip-hop beat behind them. Consider her team-up with LeTigre on “Sisters O Sisters”. The Go Team-like background chorus behind the chorus, “My sisters, we must learn to fight”, sounds off as a goofy MyFirst feminist fight song. The real uplifting comes from the duet with Cat Power on “Revelations”. Giving a positive spin to greed and sorrow, the duo creates the album’s standout track that features the trademark piano heard on Chan Marshall’s The Greatest. This simplistic approach also works on “Death of Samantha”, which has English progressive band Porcupine Tree providing the ambient soundscape for Ono’s haunting lyrics.
When the collaborators don’t display this restraint, the results can be puzzling as audible in songs featuring the Flaming Lips and the Sleepy Jackson. The psychedelic epic sound both bands attempted to capture is found on “Walking on Thin Ice” featuring Jason Pierce of Spiritualized. Call it playing safe, but when dealing with collaborations, minimalist approaches have the best shot. Cinematic composer Craig Armstrong seems to know this as his sweeping melody lightly plays under Ono’s English and Japanese vocals on “Shiranakatta (I Didn’t Know)”. In the end, Yes, I’m a Witch weaves a stronger spell than the typical tribute album that attempts to bring today’s generation into the Know. Ono as an artist has changed so it makes sense that her most recent work would as well.