Ono sounds delighted to stand at the prow of this juggernaut.
The original Plastic Ono band is one of the great rock bands ever assembled, and the original Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band is one of the great rock records. You’d be forgiven for skipping it given the gauntlet of worry, chaos and horror Yoko Ono puts us through as a singer, but Klaus Voormann and Ringo Starr form a harder rhythm section together than Starr ever did with Paul McCartney, and John Lennon’s guitar is sympatico with Ono’s vocals, predicting and approximating her shrieks and wails, the two intimately symbiotic as only a couple can be.
The Plastic Ono Band returns on 2009’s Between My Head and the Sky, the family business now in the hands of Yoko’s son Sean, who backs up his mother with muscle and grace. The rest of the collaborators are mostly Japanese: Cibo Matto’s Yuka Honda, po-mo pop tinkerer Cornelius, various session cats. Starr and Voormann are absent, but it’s hard to imagine this album existing without Ono knowing she’s made great rock records in the past and feeling determined to make one again.
At its best, Between My Head and the Sky captures some of the same energy as Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band or the first disc of Fly. “Waiting for the D Train” and “Ask the Elephant” are art-schooled, monochrome funk-dub, the sort of rock ’n’ roll New Yorkers once exhibited in the lofts they inherited from Ono and her Fluxus cohorts. “Calling” finds Ono digging into the Beatles’ book of tricks, as she did on her magnificent pop album Season of Glass, coming up with a trip-hop approximation of “Tomorrow Never Knows.”
As usual, Ono sounds delighted to stand at the prow of this juggernaut. Her vocalizations on “Waiting for the D Train” turn the act of waiting at the station into a series of mishaps, stray thoughts, and orgasms. “Ask the Elephant” is hilarious, finding Ono insulted by both an elephant and a window and channeling some of the same hostility towards the mundanities of life as we hear on Talking Heads’ “Animals.” Her gentle seaside piano ballads, like “Memory of Footsteps” and “I’m Going Away Smiling,” are no less touching than songs like “Toyboat” from which they’re descended.
A whole album of songs like these could be stellar. But while Plastic Ono Band was a product of the vinyl era, this is a CD-era release, so it’s crowded with bonus tracks, filler tracks, and tracks that do the same things as other tracks but not as well. Whereas on “Waiting for the D Train”Yoko uses her yelps and screams to communicate the topsy-turviness of modern life, her grunts on “Moving Mountains” simply hang in the mix doing nothing. And while “Feel The Sand” is a nice guided meditation, “Healing” uses the same backdrop of willowy guitar to project her nonsensical musings on the state of the world. “We need action,” she says, refreshingly, before closing the loop and contradicting herself: “…and the action is peace.”
It’s hard to shake the sense that this is more a vehicle for the return of the Plastic Ono Band than a unified work of art making good use of it. An album of just Ono and a crack rock band without digressions like “The Sun Is Down!,” a bit of indie-disco as dated to 2009 as Starpeace was to 1985, could be magic. I’d say she needs a good editor, but the production on Between My Head and the Sky is credited to Sean. Can you imagine telling your mother she needs to cut down her album?