When it comes to the subject of Yoko Ono, so much vilification has been written about her that it’s almost pointless to reiterate here. But love her or hate her, you have to think about the fact that if John Lennon saw something wonderful and original in Ono, what was the issue with the rest of the world? I happen to believe that it comes down to one of the planet’s oldest emotions. That illogical, crazy reaction we know as jealousy. The fact that millions thought she broke up The Beatles was really just a reaction to the fact that they wanted their very first “boy band” to continue dancing like monkeys for their entertainment. The world and especially America wanted the Fab Four to always be a cartoonish fabrication.
But truth be told, long before that assumption, Lennon was done with The Beatles anyhow. All the money and accolades in the world couldn’t have kept him in his shiny grey suit and pointy boots any longer than he was obligated to be as that entertainer. What Lennon saw in Ono was more about evolving into his existence rather than pitting her against the world as the reason for leaving the famous group, and he took to her with mind, body and soul.
To be fair, I can see what he might have been enamored with back then. Long before Ono met Lennon, she had a direction of her own invention. An avant garde innovator of the early era, Ono had a self-made scene. Rubbing elbows with John Cage and other luminaries (she was a member of the Fluxus movement of artists), Ono hosted countless series of raw and original visual happenings as far back as 1961.
A self-promoting apprentice of the bizarre, Ono forged her own radical brand as a pioneer of conceptual and performance art, going far against the grain and mesmerizing (or alienating) a denizen of New York City scenesters.
As far as her music is concerned, I have to admit I was never a knowledgeable fan up until Double Fantasy hit us like a ton of bricks. It was at that point that I began to understand what Lennon may have seen in her as a recording artist, and as a savvy composer. Songs such as “Kiss Kiss Kiss” and “Yes, I’m Your Angel” were solid line drives, and probably did more than any other record to date to bring her into a commercial focus. I can only wonder if she was relieved to have that visibility, or perhaps extremely uncomfortable. Either way, those songs stand up in the face of time.
But as I explained, these were just the tip of the proverbial iceberg, and Ono’s music deserves more than a casual, average Joe listen from that last popular disc.
So when producer and musician Tony Donato announced his latest tribute to the Big Apple icon, I was more than curious to explore the project.
The tribute is titled Cut Pieces: A Tribute To Yoko Ono, and is Donato’s first production for Main Man Records. The album title is a reference to “Cut Piece” (singular, where the album title is plural), a performance art piece Yoko originated in the early 1960s, and an interactive experience wherein she invites gallery patrons to come up on stage and cut pieces of her clothing off with scissors, a statement on the vulnerability of women in society.
Featuring 16 diverse tracks, Cut Pieces is an introspective array of Ono compositions presented in individual context and terms. The album also coexists as a benefit release for New Jersey Peace Action (njpeaceaction.org).
Ms. Ono has always been an outspoken activist for world peace, going back to 1969 and her “Bed In For Peace” with John Lennon, so Cut Pieces: A Tribute To Yoko Ono is a beautiful synchronicity, joining Ms. Ono’s passionate quest and tying into the original happening. And for all those Beatles fans that think Ono is some otherworldly ice queen, Donato tells a different tale. “Yoko was completely gracious and generous to a fault, allowing us to use her songs at no charge, given the fundraiser nature of the project.”
The 16-track album is not only musically diverse but features a great assembly of artists from all over the playing field.
Bebe Buell leads things off with Double Fantasy track “I’m Movin’ On.” Bebe Buell learned long ago that when it comes to attacking a track, it’s always best to let it flow from the heart. She uses her special blend of dusky vocals and raw, pumping musicians to push “I’m Movin’ On” straight into your rock and roll soul. Armoring her cut with the feedbacked, Gibson glory of guitarist Jimmy Walls (Nashville Aces, Das Damen), Buell serves the listener up a thick slice of Max’s Kansas City baked rock and roll pie. Delicious!
Other highlights on Cut Pieces are the quirky, new wave drive of Jack Brag’s “Walking On Thin Ice.” Ominous and dark, Jack Brag takes the listener down their Joy Division meets The Doors pathway with time warp variations and colorful imagery. Guitarist David Falcone mixes chimey electrics (I love the David Gilmour-inspired guitar work at the end of the song) with orchestral cello, hypnotic bass and drums, and the band pounds their animalistic minimalism all over the 3:53 time frame.
Wild Carnation is a band that I’ve mentioned in other articles, and I’m glad to see them back on Cut Pieces. As you know, husband and wife team of Brenda Sauter and Richard Barnes originally hailed from The Feelies before launching Wild Carnation. Their track “New York Woman” combines swirling swatches of melancholy steeped in forlorn Chris Isaak-inspired melody and minor feel. Wild Carnation guides the listener on a florally laced trip into the lush garden of good and evil on their track. The middle-eight is sonically brilliant, and the guitar work of Richard Barnes is way above the fold.
Frankenstein 3000 does their breezy punk rock thing on “Move On Fast.” Smothered in a tonnage of boisterous riffage, Keith Roth and his gang play rough-edged rock and roll like nobody else and they dominate on this disc. It’s gratifying to point out that Ono’s songwriting knowledge shines through on these cuts and the continuity of the individual compositions flow as effortlessly as Donato’s decisions on track positioning.
The back porch folkie swagger of Rebecca Turner sizzles on “Nobody Sees Me Like You Do.” Violins cry their glimmering reinforcement as Turner croons sweet, summertime vocal magic all over the focused verses. Accordions run in intricate tandem with fiddles, taking the spotlight before throwing it back to Turner in the verse. This song is another stylistic example of an original presentation mated to a song with solid formulated writing success.
Christian Beach, a Main Man Records veteran, is back on “Silver Horse,” and he executes a blistering and highly original take on this Yoko Ono gem. Beach is a talented singer, hitting registers that very few singers in the scene can hope to reach. Powerful and organic, his band shuffles in the vein of Pink House era Dylan as they groove deep in the pocket of this beautiful tune. Pianos and guitars dance in simple, barrelhouse space as accordions, drums and bass work (courtesy of Brian Kelley, Mike Scotto and Gorgo Beach) anchor this tune to the tarmac. Memorable for days on end, it’s another smart offering on this exceptional cornucopia of sound.
As usual, space means I can’t mention each performer, but every song contributed here is a prime example of performance savvy and arrangement prowess. Everyone that took part should be commended for their involvement in this special project.
There is arguably no artist as misunderstood as Yoko Ono. Cut Pieces: A Tribute To Yoko Ono deconstructs and reimagines an essential collection of skillfully constructed pop rock songs in the artists’ own context and in their specific terms.
The album, which represents styles ranging from pop, rock, country, blues and new wave, is available now at mainmanrecords.com//yokotribute.