Yoko Ono inspires either reverence or indignation whenever her name is mentioned. Being the surviving widow of John Lennon is no easy task, either. But for the last six decades, Ono has been an artist first and foremost. Lennon helped to make her a recording artist. Her own records have been both celebrated and reviled, but her catalog stands on its own and it holds up as a reflection of the artist in her time. Yes, I'm a Witch is a collaborative album with a twist: each of the 16 artists involved with this project was given Ono's entire catalog to listen to and pick a track. They were given the vocal tracks to each song they chose and were also able to pick any instrumental tracks they wanted to use. Most decided to keep just the vocal. The collaborating artists in this amazing mix are Hank Shocklee, Cat Power, Jason Pierce of Spiritualized, the Flaming Lips, Le Tigre, Porcupine Tree, Shitake Monkey, Polyphonic Spree, Antony (with Hahn Rowe), the Apples in Stereo, DJ Spooky, Peaches, the Blow Up, Craig Armstrong, the Brother Brothers, and the Sleepy Jackson. That said, this is no ordinary collaboration. There isn't anything lazy or lackluster about the way these artists use Ono's vocals and her phrasing -- and in some cases the accompanying music. The sum total is not only that Ono is relevant in the 21st century, but more than that, it's -- perhaps -- that the 21st century is ready for Ono. Beginning with Shocklee's "Witch Shocktronica," Ono's manifesto (which is also offered as an outro near the end of the album), her voice and words are woven into, juxtaposed against, folded on top of, and haunted like a ghost through the middle of each of these songs. All of them are performed as such. Check the new electro futurism of "Kiss Kiss Kiss" with Peaches, where Ono's songs and her trademark yowl are set into the heart of the beats here. Then there's Shitake Monkey's "O'Oh," where he sets Ono's killer singsong verses against a wall of samples and breaks,. The track includes a killer sample of the opening riff of Grover Washington, Jr.'s classic "Mister Magic" as the base groove.
The Blow Up use "Everyman Everywoman" as a full-on psychedelic rave-up worthy of the Kinks circa 1965. Le Tigre drop the bass-throbbing bomb electronic funk with horn loops and backing choruses on "Sisters O Sisters." The Apples in Stereo choose "Nobody Sees Me Like You Do" and turn it into a psych rock love ballad full of vulnerability, ringing bells, and sweeping refrains outlined with synth strings and a big fat keyboard through the middle. The Brother Brothers make "Yes, I'm a Witch" into a towering industrial funk metal groover. Cat Power merely illustrates Ono's voice with a piano and her own subdued backing vocals on "Revelations." The glorious treatment Pierce gives to "Walking on Thin Ice" underscores the loss and heartbreak in the lyric before turning into an acid-drenched celebration of life where tears are part of everything at one time or another. The violence in the mix offers a different dimension to the sparse delivery of the original and brings back the feeling of chaos that Ono must have felt with Lennon suddenly gone. It's among the most impressive selections on the set. Antony and Hahn Rowe's treatment of "Toyboat" is everything you would expect from him: it's tender, simple, childlike. Antony's reverbed piano lines the cut as drum loops and Rowe's double- and triple-tracked violin float around Ono's vocal. It's the most beautiful thing here. The Flaming Lips simply do their thing to "Cambridge 1969/2007." It sounds more like a Lips tune than anything, and the artist's individual identity suffers a bit because of that huge wall of music and noise they construct. There are a few titles that don't work very well, such as the Sleepy Jackson's synthetic disco take on "I'm Moving On" and Polyphonic's all-too-brief "You and I," but most of it's a wonder and a new manner of hearing Ono, not through a lens, but through a prism, as part of a swirling wave of color, texture, rhythm, and artifice that brings her rightful place to the forefront. Highly recommended.