Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band: “Between My Head and the Sky”

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Since 2001, Yoko Ono has released exactly three recordings, and only one of them can be termed a proper album. The first two, both released in 2007, were Open Your Box— in which vintage Ono tracks were remixed by the likes of Basement Jaxx and Pet Shop Boys– and Yes, I’m a Witch, in which vintage Ono tracks were re-invented and re-imagined by indie luminaries ranging from Cat Power to The Flaming Lips. Both albums fell somewhere between collaboration and retrospective, and neither were really and truly collections of brand new Yoko Ono music, but they were illuminating albums nevertheless: Despite her standing as the most controversial (and, in some circles, reviled) woman in rock history, she has somehow become something of an icon, and a sort of godmother, to a new generation of indie musicians– musicians who know her not as the woman who broke up The Beatles, but as a visionary whose work in the avant garde has become a touchstone.

That she would be a celebrated figure in indie music is not so surprising; give one listen to the new Flaming Lips LP, Embryonic, and it becomes apparent why experimental and “alternative” acts might find inspiration in her acid-drenched artistry. But what does an avant garde artist do when her music is no longer on the vanguard, but rather has become absorbed into the vernacular? The answer comes in the third of the relatively-new Ono albums, and her first proper release since 2001, Between My Head and the Sky. Simply put, it’s the most accessible music she’s ever made, and also some of the best. Released, as so many critics have noted, in the same month that brought the Beatles remasters and Beatles Rock Band, Ono’s album defiantly ignores those landmarks, instead reviving the Plastic Ono Band moniker she created with John: As such, the album stands as a bold statement of her own identity and legacy as an artist in her own right, not just a footnote in the story of the Fab Four.

The Plastic Ono Band emblem is more of a philosophical thing than an actual band, of course: Ono herself is the only original “member” who is present here, as there are no cameos from Eric Clapton or Ringo Starr. Rather, the Plastic Ono name serves as a sort of banner for a loose, exploratory set of recordings that actually recalls the ramshackle, family-and-friends jam-session approach of early Paul McCartney albums, particularly Ram. But of course, Paul’s music has always been based in old-fashioned rock and roll, while Ono’s is something altogether other: Between My Head and the Sky forsakes the shrill screaming and noise-collage tendencies of her most abrasive work, but it’s still rooted in Eastern music, acid jazz, and experimental rock.

She made this set with son Sean Lennon and a group of like-minded confederates, and the resulting album is outstanding. It’s spirited and spontaneous, recorded in less than a week and mostly improvised in the studio. Its fifteen songs are unashamedly eclectic, and they encompass some of Ono’s best work. The opening trifecta is brilliant: “Waiting for the D Train” is locomotive garage rock with impressionistic lyrics from Ono; “The Sun is Down” is a spoke poem set to music that falls somewhere between jazz and techno, and it’s way out there, moody and hypnotic and utterly edgy; and “Ask the Elephant” is nursery-rhyme funk that’s joyfully childlike and absurd.

From there, the band really stretches out for songs, sketches, and tone poems that are loose, diverse, and absorbing in their spontaneity: Not all of them are knockouts, but taken as a whole, the album has a very winning feel of a group of like-minded friends simply exploring their music and following the muse wherever it takes them. There are acid-jazz freakouts, piano pieces, and even some material that borders on trance. It’s experimental, but oddly mesmerizing and generally very melodic. If it’s creativity you’re after, this thing is unimpeachable.

Ono herself is the unifying spirit here, with her personality poured into every note– and no, that’s not a bad thing. She’s as good-natured, as philosophical and peace-loving as ever, and also plenty weird. She sticks to actual singing here, and her lyrics– again, improvised– are charming in their raggedness, their impressionistic form of expression. At times she’s essentially spouting give-peace-a-chance mantras that don’t read well on paper, but, given the spirit of this project, they come across as rather charming. But the brilliance here is that, while it’s more a proper Yoko Ono album than anything she’s released in years, it’s also very much a collaboration, not just between mother and son, but between Ono and her band: It’s music driven by the common drive to make something special, something brimming with imagination, and on those terms it can only be called a smashing success.

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