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Review: Yoko Ono Risks Accessibility on ‘Yes, I’m a Witch Too’

Yoko Ono at Imagine: John Lennon 75th Birthday Concert
NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 05: (Editorial Use Only) Yoko Ono performs on stage during the Imagine: John Lennon 75th Birthday Concert at The Theater at Madison Square Garden on December 5, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Blackbird)
SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: February 19, 2016
Label: Manimal Group

At 83, Yoko Ono is still cooler (and probably more subversive) than you — not to mention most indie artists a quarter her age. And whether you care about her legacy or not, she’s been a prominent pop figure for nearly half a century (!), largely because Ono has always surrounded herself with top talents and varying eccentrics. When your art is raw, freaky, and unapologetic, it often needs discerning eyes and gifted ears to translate it into something we can collectively embrace. It helps to be Mrs. Lennon, too.

So here she follows up 2007’s covers and remixes album Yes, I’m a Witch with another collection that’s just as strong and intriguing, mainly because of the smorgasbord of indie and electro-pop oddballs and A-lister names attached to it. If that demographic doesn’t know any of the originals here, it doesn’t really matter, because suddenly Yoko Ono has become accessible, and this somehow lets her lyrics — many simple yet vivid— shine. (Cue “I Have a Woman Inside My Soul: “I see a tombstone inside my soul / It’s old and mossy, covered in leaves / It stands with an engraving on its surface / But I don’t know what it reads.”) Likewise, her vocals, the one thread that weaves this whole thing together, feel especially ethereal, whether emitted via fragile quivers or piercing caws. Given the modern production, she could even be mistaken for Björk at times.

Some artists here render their interpretations more literal than others, like DJ/producer Danny Tenaglia, who transforms 1981’s classic “Walking on Thin Ice” (the original of which was finished just prior to — as in, hours before — John Lennon‘s death) into a weighty, melodramatic, synth-symphonic piece primed and ready for a feature film on Ono’s life. Or tUnE-yArDs, whose scrappy, percussive, slightly abrasive cover of “Warrior Woman” relentlessly throbs amidst a clutter of electronic drums.

Elsewhere, though, the remixer sheds their own self-image in respect to Ono’s avant-garde aesthetic. Death Cab for Cutie splinters “Forgive Me My Love” into 8-bit beats, the melody broken down like a pointillist painting. Next, Peter Bjorn and John build “Mrs. Lennon” off an echoing, woozy guitar line that eventually goes off the rails, mutating into an unhinged psych-rock attack.

Others revel in the fact that no matter how hard they try, they still can’t be as weird as Ono: Sparks take “Give Me Something” on a dizzying, carnival ride, its skittering piano stabs making Ono’s demands sound even more maniacal. Possibly the squarest act here, Portugal. The Man beautify doomsday anthem “Soul Got Out of the Box” with dainty acoustic picking (that ever so slightly recalls “Dear Prudence”), and a slow-building melody that sways like a Broken Bells ballad.

Others still resort to dance-floor indulgence, with varying success: Penguin Prison goes downright disco with the pulsating and quite fun “She Gets Down on Her Knees,” while DJ Dave Audé goes into overdrive with cheesy house banger “Wouldnit,” before Moby dims the lights, patiently letting closing track “Hell in Paradise” unfurl into a stormy sea of slithering synths. Ultimately, no redo here sounds like any of the others, or remotely like its original, and that’s the point. “It seems easier for us if I don’t show all of myself,” Ono dreamily drawls on “Forgive Me My Love,” and it seems to be the general thesis to this Witch project. It’s perhaps why she still surrounds herself with top talents and varying eccentrics. A true witch must maintain some enigma, after all.