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Yoko Ono Plastic Ono Band - Between My Head and the Sky

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Artist: Yoko Ono Plastic Ono Band

Album: Between My Head and the Sky

Label: Chimera

Review date: Sep. 18, 2009

As Yoko Ono found out when she visited London to play at Ornette Coleman’s Meltdown festival in June 2009, she is still remembered by some sections of the press as “the woman who broke up the Beatles.” Given her illustrious history as a Fluxus artist prior to meeting John Lennon and her impressive discography since the demise of the fab four, that attitude increasingly looks misogynist, xenophobic and stupid.

Ono can also attract hostility from those who still believe her singing is typified by the visceral wailing that dominated her early albums on tracks such as “Why” and “Fly.” In truth, alongside that wailing were songs that she sang pure and true with a voice that was emotional and affecting. It is that side of her singing that dominates Between My Head and The Sky.

For this album and at Meltdown, much has been made of the reappearance of the Plastic Ono Band credit – its first use since 1975. Of course, this edition does not have Clapton on guitar or Ringo on drums, but in the “supergroup” spirit of the original, it brings together diverse elements including son and co-producer Sean Lennon, Japanese pop musicians including Keigo “Cornelius” Oyamada and Yuka Honda (of Cibo Matto) plus selected New York improvisers.

The role of the Plastic Ono Band was always to supply a solid foundation of straightforward rock music without stealing the spotlight from Ono, who then sang, wailed or improvised on top of that foundation. With this revised version of the band, that role has evolved. There are more reflective pieces characterized by subdued piano accompaniment, and occasional touches that make the rock music distinctive. Michael Leonhart’s trumpet intro and interjections on “Memories of Footsteps” interact with and enhance the vocals as they deliver an intriguing and engaging narrative. “I’m Going Away Smiling,” a reflective piece surely addressed to John Lennon, is given a suitably pastoral mood by Erik Friedlander’s cello. Oddly, “Calling” opens with a sitar-like drone of which George Harrison would have been proud. Yes, it is difficult to listen to Ono without hearing echoes of her past.

Unlike recent Ono albums, this one does not revive or remix past songs (except to include the four tracks previously released in June 2009 on the iTunes download EP Don’t Stop Me.) All 15 tracks are new Ono compositions, composed in a six-day burst during the recording session. Some were written and recorded the same day, and it shows. On the opener “Waiting For the D Train” Ono repeats the title phrase interspersed with the sort of vocal noises that are vestigial traces of the wailing. “Moving Mountains” is entirely wordless and Ono’s expressively melodic voice here ought to be required listening for anyone who ever peddles criticism of her singing.

Some songs had lyrics freely improvised by Ono. At times this produces lines that are charmingly naïve, as on “Ask the Elephant” which has a nursery rhyme quality. Otherwise, concerns and issues from her life recur in Ono’s lyrics, not least references to positivism, peace, love and universal consciousness. So, “Healing” opens with the repeated phrase “Imagine peace” before going on to suggest, “Let’s put all the sad songs together / and change our negative energy / to create a beautiful future / it’s very simple,” all delivered over a tranquil reflective accompaniment. On “Unun. To” she recites, “Life becomes like a lover you have been close to / You know him so well and yet every day he gives you a surprise / When you say I love you, remember you are not just saying it to the one you love / you are saying to yourself, the planet and the Universe.”

Credit must go to Sean Lennon for producing (and releasing on his own label) an album that combines the best of his mother’s creative instincts into a varied and eclectic summary of her music. Famously, on her 1995 album Rising, when Ono sang the first words that came into her head, she came out with “I’m dying.” Fittingly, this album concludes with the far more life-affirming end piece “I’m Alive.” It’s an album that leaves you feeling better after listening to it.

By John Eyles

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