Various Artists, ‘Ocean Child: Songs of Yoko Ono': Album Review
Yoko Ono's catalog isn't easy to navigate or even define at times. Even when John Lennon was on board as a collaborator – band member, producer or cheerleader – her music could be willfully difficult and stubbornly uncommercial. She's a singular artist, maybe more so than her late husband and his famous band, which makes any tribute to her vast recorded work an uphill charge not exactly suited for the easily intimidated.
The 14 brave souls who tackle Ono's music on Ocean Child: Songs of Yoko Ono can't truly replicate her distinctive path, and much of the source material hinges on her artist's right to explore those paths via routes of her choosing. In other words, they're not songs in the traditional sense. There have been some interpretable tracks over the years: "Who Has Seen the Wind?," "Listen, the Snow Is Falling" and "Walking on Thin Ice" are close enough to pop music.
Two of those three songs make it onto Ocean Child; "Walking on Thin Ice" was covered by Elvis Costello on a previous Ono tribute album from 1984. It says much about the vastness of her discography that none of the tracks on the 50th-birthday celebration Every Man Has a Woman is repeated here.
And like all tribute records, Ocean Child rests on its ability to stay faithful to the original material while pushing those concepts forward. Some of the tracks here work better than others in that regard. Sharon Van Etten's version of "Toyboat" adopts Ono's clipped phrasing and spare instrumentation; "Who Has Seen the Wind?" molds into a shared David Byrne-Yo La Tengo aesthetic; Jay Som uncovers the sweetness of "Growing Pain"; and Japanese Breakfast transforms "Nobody Sees Me Like You Do" into a lovely, delicate piano ballad.
Other artists – like U.S. Girls, Deerhoof and the Flaming Lips – shape Ono's songs in their experimental-rock images, discovering common threads within the work. Death Cab for Cutie (frontman Benjamin Gibbard curated the set) even manage to update "Waiting for the Sunrise" as '00s indie-rock. But there's a part of Ocean Child that adheres so closely to Ono's original vision, too closely at times, that the results are stifled (see: Stephin Merritt's mannered and fussy "Listen, the Snow Is Falling"). Overall, though, the album renders an occasionally challenging artist as practically approachable at times.