Monday, May 2, 2022

Ocean Child: songs of Yoko Ono

[Various Artists]
Ocean Child: Songs of Yoko Ono
New York City, USA: Atlantic Records, 2022
12" vinyl LP
Edition size unknown

I recently read Ray Padgett’s entry in the 33 1/3 series, about I’m Your Fan: The Songs of Leonard Cohen. The book uses the titular 1991 compilation to examine the goals and impact of tribute albums in general. Most hope to celebrate a songwriter, and introduce their work to "a broader audience”. Often they are released in aid of a worthy charity. And even the best of them are entirely patchy affairs. 

My personal favorite might be Sweet Relief 2: Gravity of the Situation, with artists such as Joe Henry and Mary Margaret O'Hara covering songs by Vic Chesnutt. It’s the sequel to Sweet Relief: A Benefit for Victoria Williams, assembled to raise funds to cover the cost of Williams’ medical bills after she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.1 Williams selected Chesnutt for the follow-up because "not only is he an unsung talented singer/songwriter... but he represents the plight of a physically handicapped musician who's still out there working".

The problem with the disk is that to get to Kristin Hersh and Red Red Meat's excellent renditions, one has to skip past Hootie and the Blowfish and Soul Asylum. Those bands have likely sold more records than all the other contributors combined, but it's doubtful that their fanbase would seek out this, making their inclusion more than a little unfortunate.

The latest entry in the tribute album genre is Ocean Child: The Songs of Yoko Ono, which was released two months ago, on the artist's 89th birthday. Like the Cohen tribute(s) and the two Sweet Relief records (and perhaps Neil Young’s The Bridge, another solid entry), the impetus for this collection is likely the conventional wisdom that the songwriters might reach a wider audience if it weren't for their voice. 

I suppose that the countless covers of Cohen's "Hallelujah"2 (has anyone even heard the original?) give credence to this notion, but for the most part I suspect that if you can't get past Vic Chesnutt's voice you probably aren't going to appreciate his songwriting anyway. And Yoko Ono more so. 

I would argue that the first tribute album ever made was also a Yoko Ono tribute album. Every Man Has a Woman, from 1984, was created as a labour of love and intended as a 50th birthday present from her husband, John Lennon, who was killed before he could complete it. The only major collection of note to proceed it is Amarcord Nino Rota. The 1981 jazz album celebrating the composer best known for his Fellini collaborations was compiled by Hal Wilner, who died in 2020, of Covid. Wilner is often (rightly) credited as the grandfather of the genre: he is responsible for several well-curated collections of reinterpreted music by Kurt Weil, the Walt Disney Corporation, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Harry Smith, and Leonard Cohen (his third tribute). But Amarcord Nino Rota is an instrumental album and ultimately falls outside of the pop tribute album as we've come to understand it. 

Every Man Has a Woman features Elvis Costello delivering a decent reading of "Walking on Thin Ice" and Lennon’s own take on the title song (simply singing over her original backing track) is notable, but the disk is padded out with a lot of unnecessary MOR. The net was not cast wide: Roberta Flack lived in the same building as Ono; Eddie Money’s brother was head of Lennon and Ono’s security detail; the German band Trio (best known for their hit "Da da da” two years prior) were scouted and produced produced by Klaus Voormann3; and Harry Nilsson was an old friend and collaborator.4

The record was ultimately an unsatisfying and inessential disc at the time, and the production on most of the tracks hasn't aged well. 

Yoko Ono is also the subject of no less than five remix albums, many of which feature cover/remix hybrids. The first, Rising Mixes, from 1996, featured remixes of the previous year's excellent Rising LP, by Cibo Matto, Ween, Tricky, Thurston Moore, Perry Farrell, and Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys. Tricky, Ween and the Cibos all contributed their own vocals to the songs that they remixed. 

Yes, I'm a Witch from eleven years later took the premise a step further, with about half of the tracks on the remix LP becoming more like cover versions that traditional remixes. Peaches and Le Tigre are both well suited to Ono's music and contribute strong cuts, but the standout for me is Cat Power's duet with Ono on Revelations. The original is excellent, but Chan Marshall's childlike piano chords and restructuring of the lyrics pays off nicely. 

The sequel to the LP, arriving nine years later, is less effective. Yes, I'm a Witch Too features reworkings by Moby, Portugal. The Man, Sparks, Peter Bjorn and John, Tune-Yards, Cibo Matto and others. Death Cab for Cutie's remix of "Forgive Me My Love" is likely the link between this record and Ocean Child

The band's singer, Ben Gibbard, initiated and compiled Ocean Child, reaching out to bands he knew and  others he thought would be interested in participating. Not all of the tracks work, but he does a decent job selecting artists and sequencing the record. 

The album opens strongly, with "Toy Boat", by the always excellent Sharon Van Etten. She maintains Ono's melody and phrasings, but updates the production. 

David Byrne enlists Yo La Tengo (saying he was drawn to the dreamier songs the band has released) for his cover of "Who Has Seen the Wind", which initially appeared as the b-side to Lennon's "Instant Karma" single, in 1970. Given that the opening stanza 

Who has seen the wind?
Neither you nor I:
But when the trees bow down their heads,
The wind is passing by

is borrowed from a 19th-century poem by Christina Rossetti, Byrne takes license to alter some of the lyrics, removing the more personal references in the song. 

The third track is the most striking. "Dogtown" ranks among my favorite Ono songs and the violinist and singer Sudan Archives manages to make the song her own. She minimizes the off-kilter phrasing of the original (dropping a word or two here and there) but does so to find her own rhythm in the song. It's a beautiful, sultry reading of an excellent song. 

The Flaming Lips (who have collaborated with Ono, and previously appeared on I'm A Witch) cover 
the the song "Mrs Lennon" from Ono's classic Fly LP. The conventional sounding ballad is about the fear of erasure (from becoming both a wife, and the wife of a superstar) and ironically became better known as "Holocaust", Big Star's second sweetest song, when Alex Chilton pinched the melody.5

Japanese Breakfast - who had just been nominated for a Grammy shortly before the release of Ocean Child - turns in a simple piano ballad version of "Nobody Sees Me Like You Do" (an arrangement not dissimilar to Cat Power's "Revelations"). We Are King contribute an atmospheric R&B version of "Don't be Scared", from the posthumous collaboration with Lennon, Milk & Honey. There are also entirely competent covers by other bands I love, such as the Magnetic Fields, Deerhoof, and US Girls. 

The weakest track comes from compiler Ben Gibbard's band, Death Cab for Cutie. The original version of "Waiting for the Sunrise" was never a favourite of mine, but at least conveyed the sense of a woman worn down by the world but still able to locate a kind of fragile hope. Gibbard's reading makes it sound like a guy laying awake in bed waiting for his alarm to go off.5
But overall Ocean Child is a strong entry into the tribute album genre, and (next to Rising Mixes) the most consistently listenable of the six7 compilations that celebrate Ono's songwriting. And (like many tribute albums, the proceeds benefit a worthy cause: WhyHunger

In a podcast dedicated to the disk, Gibbard described all the standard reasons for compiling the tribute, though noted one generational difference. Unlike a decade or more ago - when Ono's catalogue would either be out of print or hard to locate - listeners interested in learning more after hearing younger acts performing Ono's songs can now very easily locate the originals instantly. 

I'd suggest the early classics Fly and Plastic Ono Band, the 1995 "comeback" record Rising and the record Ono was working on when Lennon was shot and killed, Season of Glass. Oddly, I think my favourite is A Story, which was recorded in 1974 during the 18 month separation from Lennon, and not released for decades. I first heard it on Onobox, which came out in 1992 and it was given a standalone release five years later. It's nowhere near as important as the above disks, but it contains the sweet song "Winter Friend", and the original appearance of "Dogtown". 

1. As I recall, the proceeds went to a general musician’s relief fund and the subject of the tribute received their songwriter’s royalties, which would not have been insubstantial given that Pearl Jam’s version of her song “Crazy Mary” became a hit for the band. Lou Reed, who also contributed, later took Williams out on the road with him as his opening act, raising her profile further.

2. John Cale covered "Hallelujah" on I'm Your Fan and Jeff Buckley essentially covered his version (omitting the same verses, for example). Subsequently it practically rivals "Yesterday" in the ubiquity of cover versions, each less interesting than the last. 

3. Klaus Voormann was a friend of Lennon’s from the early days of the Beatles, who they met when the band performed in Hamburg in 1960. He designed album covers for the Beatles (Revolver and the posthumous Anthology series) and was a member of the Plastic Ono Band, playing bass on both of Lennon and Ono’s solo debuts, as well as Live Peace in Toronto, Imagine, Fly, and Sometime in New York City

4. Harry Nilsson first met Ono and Lennon in 1968, on the weekend Cynthia Lennon moved out and Ono moved in. He co-wrote the song "Old Dirt Road" with Lennon, who produced Nilsson's 1974 album Pussycats. In addition to the three tracks for Every Man Has A Woman Who Loves Him (("Silver Horse", "Dream Love", and "Loneliness") Nilsson planned to release an LP in 1985 titled Harry Does Yoko. His version of "Never Say Goodbye" appeared as the b-side of a 1994 CD single from Ono's New York Rock soundtrack. His adult contemporary version of "Listen, The Snow Is Falling" appeared on his posthumous collection Losst and Founnd. In a recent interview with SiriusXM, Sean Lennon stated that he is mixing tracks for the eventual release of Harry Does Yoko. 

5. In a 1987 interview with Dawn Eden, Chilton was asked "Did you have that song in mind when you wrote “Holocaust”?" He replied "I don’t know. I think that it was one of those instances of plagiarism that you sort of are aware of somewhere in your mind, but not…I think that, at the time I was doing the tune, I didn’t realize that I was copying it."

6. It reminds me of the time a pre-famous Vanessa Paradis covered the Velvet Underground’s "Waiting for the Man". The song was transformed from the story of an agitated junkie in need of a fix, to that of a woman whose boyfriend is running late. 

7. I've just learned of three additional independent tribute records to Ono: Mrs. Lennon (2010), Cut Pieces (2015) and  SuONO (2019). 


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