Yoko Ono/IMA

At this point, news of Yoko Ono recording an opera creates just the sort of buzz as Paul Getty announcing the same: Both do it because they can, recalling that joke about the 500-pound gorilla. Ono's New York Rock was released earlier this year, and it's certainly awful; her two-dimensional spin on Fluxus ideology prevents her from making grand statements that resonate with anyone but Judy Chicago's most slavish defenders. But as befits that same ideology, Ono is now as much objet d'art as artist, and a work of real beauty can be built around her.

The new Rising is a stunning album, a real No New York job imbued with a noisy push-pull absent from her work since the early 1970s when she encouraged Eric Clapton to play like Derek Bailey. Rising's ambiguous landscape of human suffering — AIDS, war, the legacy of Hiroshima — is painted through the incantations of her voice, and couldn't be further from her bombastically “accessible” I-am-the-world-and-what-the-world-needs-now-is-love-sweet-love statements of the '80s. In their desire to communicate, singers often forget that the voice is an instrument, too. But when Ono stops preaching and starts her inimitable wailing, she speaks deeply.

IMA, Ono's pomo style-skirting band, knows its NY history, and Sean Ono Lennon's guitar is the asset you might not expect. “I'm Dying” is pure skronk, imbued with breathy woof woofs, the rock riff plausibly mocking that there should even be one. The fake funk of “Wouldnit” wouldn't be out of place on a Blondie LP, although the gunshot at the end of the song certainly would; on “Universe,” Ono even affects a Debbie Harry deadpan. Nothing sounds particularly “authentic” — another Downtown trademark — but it's an aesthetically appropriate trope for such a work of alienation.

Ono's champions usually paint her as a protofeminist, but Ono was never concerned with presenting herself as a strong woman. Long before her husband's assassination she tilled similar themes of weakness and loss, whether related to her estranged daughter, Kyoko, or the gutterlike environment; she can lapse into a meandering self-pity as she draws out every syllable of what she assumes is our sympathy. But overcome your biases: If Ono were an 18-year-old from Osaka, you wouldn't even be questioning her motivations. In fact, you'd be paying $24 plus tax for the import.

— D. Strauss

Audio Active and Laraaji
The Way Out Is the Way In


Over the past few years, celebrated artists like Bill Laswell, Massive Attack, and Tricky have been blurring the dividing lines between techno, ambient, hip hop, trance, dub, and world music, subsequently twisting them into a bold, new (and as yet undefined) genre. Audio Active and Old are two lesser-known pioneers of bristling cross-pollination, and while their respective ambient-based dub musings and electro space-rock may seem light-years apart, both groups are set to forestall future shock.

Heavily influenced by Anglo dub wizard Adrian Sherwood, Audio Active is a quartet of Japanese techheads with a gift for mystical ambient funk. The Way Out Is the Way In features the meditative laughter techniques of New York's Laraaji, whose work is remixed and reinvented into a bizarre blend of the off- and boomin'- beat. On “New Laughter Mode (The Way In),” Laraaji's sprightly giggle is used as an instrument, infecting the space-age synth 'n' bass rhythms with a good vibration. Fusing the roots of organic dub with electronic moodology and sophist wizardry, AA offers a rare thing — ambient that's both mentally and spiritually engaging.

Old, on the other hand, may have stumbled onto the sound of the next millennium. Looped guitars, synths, tapes, and rhythm machines collide with robotic vocals for an eerily androidal sound. The music routinely flares and surges like the exhaust from some mammoth interstellar battle cruiser: “rid” and “thug” are awash in churgling guitar chords, synth fuzz, and sputtering voices. It's as if Old has traveled into the future, harnessed the mechanized sound of pulsating electrodes, and transported it to the present. That is, AA is reinventing the music of the past for the future, while Old is reinterpreting the music of the future for today. How's that for a space-time continuum?

— spence d.

Souls of Mischief
No Man's Land

With their debut '93 'Til Infinity, Souls of Mischief introduced freestyle-derived lyrics and deep-in-the-record-bin beats to Oakland rap, which was previously known for simplistic, bass-heavy gangsta grooves and playa-dominated themes. For the Hieroglyphics crew — an extended East Bay family that includes Souls, Del the Funkee Homosapien, Casual, Extra Prolific, Jay Biz, Pep Love, and the Shamen — complex wordsmithery rules, and Souls' No Man's Land may be its strongest release yet. A-Plus, Tajai, Phesto, and Opio make music for true hip-hop heads this time around, with denser, danker rhymes that take several spins to really ingest. “See a nigga like me construct lines to buck minds/ You can't corrupt mine …/ I'm giving these niggas tough times/ I'm above crimes with I-don't-give-a-fuck rhymes/ Niggas love mine/ MCs see me as unkind with they dumb lines,” A-Plus raps in the title track, a thumper built around a jazzy, cascading horn riff. Though most of the titles are deceptively dull, tracks like “Rock It Like That,” the first single, bump with an almost old-school feel. Perhaps in response to their much-ballyhooed rhyme-battle with Hobo Junction at KMEL last year, in which they were dissed as college kids, Souls adopt a more confrontational edge, though they refrain from outright gangsta-isms. Unlike many rappers who front as Billy badasses, the Souls flex pure microphone skills, proud of who they are.

— Eric K. Arnold

Various Artists
Outstandingly Ignited: Lyrics by Ernest Noyes Brookings, Volume Four

Ken Nordine

It's quite possible that the artist feted with the most tribute albums to date was once a nursing home resident, a hunched little man who has regrettably departed the good Earth as we know it, an author of loopy, indecipherable poetry who couldn't claim a lick of musical expertise. No, we're not talking about Bob Dylan.

Ernest Noyes Brookings is the featured star of the Duplex Planet cottage industry, the brainchild of David Greenberger, a former old folks home activities director. The whimsical observations of his senior-citizen friends inspired Greenberger to launch a zine, which in turn inspired a book, a radio hour, and a set of collectors cards. In this musical series dedicated to Brookings' memory, bands from Yo La Tengo to the Young Fresh Fellows have interpreted the old coot's musings on such uncomplicated topics as “Skin,” “Spaghetti,” “Ear,” and “Fashion Parade.”

Too often, the canned music and half-baked country ditties of the Brookings tributes haven't done justice to the late-blooming poet's mirthful non sequiturs. Volume Four, though, has a fair amount of musical innovation. Cuts by the Ben Vaughn Combo, the Amazing Delores, and Morphine each hold up to repeated listening. “Titanic,” by John Foster and Steve Fisk (the latter of Pell Mell), provides a suitably distressed industrial backdrop for Brookings' grim take on the disaster (he rhymes “iceberg” with “sliceberg”). The Thinking Fellers execute a tinkly arrangement for “Ed Sullivan,” noting thoughtfully that the MC's guests performed “many snappy audible body acts.”

Though senility isn't yet apparent in Ken Nordine, his “word jazz” has always sounded like the work of a man-child. As a struggling radio announcer in the 1950s, Nordine began riffing on nonsense phrases set to piano at his favorite Chicago watering hole, the Mauna Loa. The gimmick caught on: Dot Records signed him up, and he became a sort of beatnik-lite for near-hipsters who couldn't stomach the thought of bisexuals running around cursing the American flag. Possessor of an instantly recognizable, rumbling baritone, Nordine was the long-running voice of Levi's, and he now does “cowboy poetry” for Coors. Colors, a 1967 assignment from the Fuller Paint company, was such a hit that Nordine revamped the work, removing its retail plugs.

Almost 30 years later, Colors has been reissued, complete with several crucial tracks (whatever did we do without “Hazel”?) that did not initially appear. As pop excavators scrabble for even more peculiar artifacts, even the demographic considered the very antithesis of pop — old age — has been subsumed. Nordine has been proving for years that it's hip to be square; posthumously Brookings, too, is making his own small contribution to America's incredibly strange culture.

— James Sullivan

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