Mixes Rise to Occasion

At first, it might come off as a cynical ploy. Pair a creaky, possibly

past-her-prime (some might say perpetually past her prime) vet with a

sampling of young, alternative artists dripping with street cred to prop

up new product and see if the kids bite. Think Tupac and Tony (Bennett),

Ministry and Mel (Torme) or Sting and Sinatra. But, when David Yow of

Jesus Lizard joined Yoko Ono and Ima on stage at the Park West in Chicago

in March (1996), audiences were simultaneously shocked and nonplused, but

certainly not bored. What could make more sense than the guttural king of

spazz rock slithering onto the stage (in a suit and tie, no less) and

barking out backing vocals to Ono's primal screams? Well, everything

actually, and nothing. So it is with the "Mixes" re-mix album that Ono

proves that she can be as contemporary as she wants to be as she settles

into her third decade in the public eye, her sixth on the planet and the

beginning of her second as the widow of slain Beatle John Lennon. As with

the full-length CD ("Rising") from which the four remixes are culled, Ono

is not just confronting the demons of death and loneliness that forever

link her to the fallen pop idol, but charging beyond her grief and rage,

to a present-tense time where her years of primal screaming and jagged

musicianship suddenly seem much less bizarre, and, in fact, prove to be

fully prescient of the state of music in these post-rock times.

"Mixes" is a lot of things. It is a mixed-up sampling of four songs from

Ono's recent (and rejuvenating) CD, "Rising," packaged with two new songs.

It is a showcase that allows a batch of mostly non-commercial artists to

give props to Ono, who, up until the release of 1992's sprawling "Ono Box"

(Rykodisc) was considered to be a footnote in rock history at most, an

earsore and nuisance at worst. And, whereas in the hands of a lesser

talent, it might come off as a desperate ploy to seem hep, it is an

engaging interactive CD that does a better job than most of exploiting the

boundaries of the-still nascent genre. In addition to a new, nearly

half-hour musical collaboration with Ima entitled "Franklin Summer," the

CD- ROM portion contains lyrics, poems, photos, artwork, excerpts from

Ono's 1964 book "Grapefruit," and a video for the song "New York Woman,"

directed by son Sean Ono Lennon. The simple beauty of Ono's writing, such

as this passage from the poem "Sleep Talk,"

"Avant-Garde art is going against the stream of things, and avant-garde

artists are ones who can't help doing it.

This is an age, when being an apres-garde is the only avant-garde thing to

do."

speaks of a woman who has nothing left to prove, except to herself. What

this freedom provides is a rare chance to interact with her younger

contemporaries and let them work their magic on her music in ways even she

could probably never imagine.

The first crack at this comes from New York's current pop darlings, Cibo

Matto. Joined by Russell Simins of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, the

duo funk up the single "Talking to the Universe" with fatter beats and a

swirling undercurrent of chattering samples, lifting the song from the

strained hipness it searches for on in the original, courtesy of some

forced- sounding scratching, to a more contemporary dance-floor work-out.

Miho Hatori's rapped/chanted vocals, mixed with Ono's original vocals,

while lacking the visceral urge of Ono's, build a nice bridge between the

simple message of peace in the song and the urban cacophony dredged up by

the remix.

The ABA Allstars, the Beastie Boy's Adam Yauch and Mario Caldato Jr., with

help from Cibo Matto, play an even wilder game of mix-and-match. One of

two new tracks on the CD, "The Source" comes on like a five a.m. wake-up

call and then locks into a trance- inducing, guttural groove part Led

Zeppelin (the drums) and part eastern booty thump. While Ono practices

her trademark moans and shrieks in the background, Caldato and Yauch build

up a wall of hand drums, booming beats, guitar squalls, and funky keyboard

strolls that lumber towards a swirling mountaintop and then slide back

down into a Philly Soul outro with Ono whispering "have mercy...on my

soul."

Ween's stab at the already out-there "Ask the Dragon," disabuses the song

of its more angular edges and puts in their place a droopy mix of

bass-heavy white funk and spacy echo effects that sound like the bedroom

noodling of two geeks, which seems appropriate. Also appropriate is the

trip-hop treatment laid on by Tricky. Starting from scratch with just

Ono's voice blended with his own murmured responses, Tricky strips "Where

do we go From Here" to its bare bones, then slips on a spare slow-fast

jungly beat, a tinkly piano buried somewhere back in the mix and an

overall languid air that feels like musical molasses thanks to his slurred

vocals in the second half of the song.

The most truly inspired remix, however, belongs to Sonic Youth's Thurston

Moore. Joined by a veritable supergroup of Japanese noise guitarist,

Moore sets loose a barrage of steely futuristic, screeching guitar

feedback against Ono's impassioned vocals and acrobatic tics. Over the

course of eight pull-and-push minutes that rage up and back, often

unexpectedly, Moore constructs a lunar soundscape that completes the

picture of post-rock past and future. What Moore understands at least as

much, if not more, than the others, is that no matter what the dressing

is, the real focus always reverts back to Ono's expressive voice, and that

even a wall of guitars is no match, whether you like it or not, for her

dramatic readings. Further proof, as if it's needed, is the thirty-minute

meditation that ends the EP, "Franklin Summer." With few lyrics to speak

of, save for Ono's otherworldly wailing, the epic song is a showcase for

IMA's measured restraint and, probably, for the patience of the

uninitiated.

The last image you see when you exit the CD-ROM potion is Ono's derriere.

A crackly voice sample deadpans, "keep smiling, and maybe you'll get

something to really smile about," as her big, black and white butt fills

the screen. This gesture alone, Ono either saying "kiss my ass" to her

detractors, or "don't be afraid to lay it on the line" to her fans, is the

ultimate Onoism. Vague, yet specific, obvious, yet misleading.