Musically speaking, Yoko Ono (“ocean child” in Japanese) is still predominantly recognized as a primal screamer, an avant-garde provocateur, and an agent of harsh, visceral noise as a kind of feminist weapon. She’s accepted, in such terms, as a key influence in the development of female-fronted alt-rock along the lines of grunge and the riot grrrl movement, with Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, Courtney Love of Hole, and Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill having all spoken of her importance to them. Her shrieking, confrontational sound may, indeed, be considered her signature style. But it’s also a stereotype. One that’s been reinforced in Peter Jackson’s recent Get Back documentary, where Yoko’s to be seen, in footage from 10 January 1969, leading Beatles John, Paul, and Ringo in an impromptu freak-out session by wailing and howling into George Harrison’s recently vacated microphone.
Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard is all too aware of the blinkered perspective many people have of Yoko’s music, doubtless aggravated by the fact that her songs still never get played on the radio. It’s this that’s driven him to curate Ocean Child: Songs of Yoko Ono, a tribute album to coincide with the New York-based artist’s 89th birthday. He’s all about doing justice to her more underappreciated musical achievements here, contending that “the tallest hurdle to clear has always been the public’s ignorance as to the breadth of Yoko’s work.” He’s aware, at the same time, that the dust has long settled on previous collaborative efforts born of similar concerns, from the Every Man Has a Woman Who Loves Him tribute record of 1984 (for Yoko’s 50th birthday), to remix projects Yes, I’m a Witch and Open Your Box in 2007, and Yes, I’m a Witch Too in 2016. This is not to forget tribute album Mrs Lennon: Songs by Yoko Ono in 2010, consisting solely of female Brazilian artists.
Gibbard, then, resumes the good fight previously fought on albums that pitched Yoko as a versatile songwriter variously relevant to the genres of new wave, experimental pop, Brazilian pop, and dance music. Over 14 tracks, he aims to convince listeners of her particular skills in composing melodies “as memorable as those of [the] best pop writers,” as well as lyrics of “poignance, sophistication and deep introspection.”
And you know what? He makes you wonder.
This is largely by commandeering a supreme assortment of old and new Yoko collaborators comprising alt-rock legends (David Byrne, Yo La Tengo, the Flaming Lips), a bedroom pop musician (Jay Som), his own group (Death Cab), an R&B duo (We are KING), a Korean-American-led dream-pop project (Japanese Breakfast), a Californian violinist/vocalist (Sudan Archives), and, of course, the go-to tribute artist of our current time (Sharon Van Etten).
Tellingly, nobody here attempts to cover anything from Yoko’s Plastic Ono Band album of 1970, famously made under the influence of primal therapy sessions with Arthur Janov, and infamously low on what you might call melodies. Likewise, nobody takes on her most popular songs, “Walking on Thin Ice,” “Death of Samantha,” or “Kiss Kiss Kiss,” with its memorably orgasmic finish (who would try that?!). Instead, the featured artists reinvent B-sides from her catalog, deep cuts from such unloved John and Yoko albums as Some Time in New York City, and obscure tracks from solo LPs Fly, Approximately Infinite Universe, Feeling the Space, and Season of Glass, only the latter of which reached the Top 50 in the Billboard 200. In doing so, they celebrate rather than denigrate the otherness of the Tokyo-born artist, the “Ocean Child” of Beatles song “Julia,” who we see in digitally manipulated and ghostly form on the accompanying artwork. They convey a sense of discovery that’s frequently compelling, by dramatically affirming the emotional, reflective, and, yes, whimsical aspects of Yoko’s idiosyncratic songcraft.
Granted, Byrne and Yo La Tengo work their combined art-rock magic on a fairly well-known Yoko B-side, “Who Has Seen the Wind?,” married as it is to 1970 John A-side “Instant Karma!” They transform the fragile, sweetly sung, and lullaby-esque piece, based upon a Christina Rossetti poem, into something like a devotional chant. No longer any medieval harpsichord sound, no tambourine, and no childlike expression of wonder at the unseen forces of nature that affect our lives. Rather, Byrne lends it a wonderfully serene vocal that’s soon enveloped in rich, Fleet Foxes-style harmonies on the chorus. This is over an instrumental drone consisting of bells and cymbals, the effect of which is consoling and entrancing, in a strangely eerie way.
Japanese Breakfast perform a similarly radical makeover of “Nobody Sees Me Like You Do,” though stripping it to its core rather than elevating it into something epic. Singer Michelle Zauner has the voice to pull it off, too, filling the song with vulnerability and heartbreak on a truly standout performance. She’s perfectly offset by a stark piano backing, and perfectly in tune with Yoko’s desolate lyrics concerning the growing gulf in a relationship: “Why does it have to be like this? You and I? / I wanted us to be happy.” She further soars on a stunning ending that leaves no room for doubt that the song is, indeed, possessed of a beautiful melody.
Death Cab, meanwhile, illuminate Yoko’s tunesmithery in a far perkier way, by laying claim to 1973’s “Waiting for the Sunrise.” In all honesty, it does seem kind of nuts that the pen of Ono should lie behind what sounds like a prime slice of mid-’90s Britpop, care of the Washington alt-rock band. The song was unusually catchy and accessible in its Approximately Infinite Universe context of 1973, but here it has an insane level of ebullience and polished pop wonkiness that is impossible to resist.
So too is a solo Yo La Tengo, going all shoegazey on 2013 song “There Is No Goodbye Between Us,” their languid vocals, reverbed guitars, and woozy strings adding extra poignancy to lyrics about being inextricably connected to another: “If one day we slip away / And maybe it’s in the cards / We will know deep in our hearts / That there’s no goodbye between us.”
Even more surprising and ambitious is what the artist known as Sudan Archives does to Infinite song “Dogtown,” originally a raw, bluesy and amusing lament on mortality and unfulfillment – in a dogtown. She brings the creeping sound of plucked violin strings to the fore, and draws out the noirish elements of the song by way of an anxious vocal, graceful harmonies, and cinematic strings. It’s a sinister joy, which in no way prepares you for what is to come, such as Toronto-based U.S. Girls going to town on 1972’s “Born In A Prison” and delivering something that’s equal parts protest song and equal parts sparkly dystopian show tune. It works, though. It truly does work.
So, really, there’s a wealth of eye-opening moments to be enjoyed on Ocean Child, with Van Etten’s haunting “Toyboat,” Jay Som’s dreamy “Growing Pain,” and Stephin Merritt’s enigmatic “Listen, The Snow Is Falling” adding considerable melodic weight to proceedings. There’s one or two letdowns, maybe, like when the Flaming Lips apply their trippy funk vibes to “Mrs. Lennon” and rob it of its plaintive beauty, or when Deerhoof unnecessarily try to replicate a Yoko-style noise catharsis on “No No No” (it can’t be done). There’s no doubt overall, though, that Ocean Child is a tribute album worthy of more than the faint praise usually applied to Yoko’s music. These are tunes of the highest order, reinvented by a diverse range of artists in extremely colorful and life-affirming ways. Wait for the sunrise no more. It’s here!
Ocean Child: Songs of Yoko Ono track listing:
1. Toyboat – Sharon Van Etten
2. Who Has Seen The Wind? – David Byrne and Yo La Tengo
3. Dogtown – Sudan Archives
4. Waiting For The Sunrise – Death Cab for Cutie
5. Yellow Girl (Stand For Life) – Thao
6. Born In A Prison – US Girls
7. Growing Pain – Jay Som
8. Listen, The Snow Is Falling – Stephin Merritt (of Magnetic Fields)
9. No No No – Deerhoof
10. Don’t Be Scared – We Are KING
11. Mrs. Lennon – The Flaming Lips
12. No One Sees Me Like You Do – Japanese Breakfast
13. There Is No Goodbye Between Us – Yo La Tengo
14. Run Run Run – Amber Coffman