The goal of the RVNG label’s FRKWYS series—the name nods to the Folkways label founded in the late 1940s by Moses Asch to document obscure folk and world music—is to unite older musicians with their younger aesthetic offspring in order to foster a trans-generational musical dialogue between like minds. Recent projects have paired experimental psych-rock duo Blues Control with new-age music pioneer Laraaji, and young vocal-collagist Julianna Barwick with no-wave trailblazer Ikue Mori. For Icon Give Thank, the ninth installment in the ongoing FRKWYS series, contemporary Los Angeles-based producers/musicians M. Geddes Gengras and Cameron Stallones (the man behind neo-dub/psych-rock project Sun Araw) hopped on a plane for Saint Catherine Parish, Jamaica, to collaborate with roots-reggae band The Congos, whose classic debut album, 1977’s Heart Of The Congos, was produced by Lee “Scratch” Perry at his Black Ark studio.
The opening track, “New Binghi,” articulates the desired convergence between old and new, perhaps too literally. Beginning with ocean-side field recordings (that effectively reference The Congos’ most popular song, “Fisherman”) and random street chatter, these natural sounds are gradually mirrored with electronic zips and flutters that accord with the lapping waves and soaring bird calls. The Congos’ chanting mysteriously emerges (“Get together, get together, and praise Rastafari”) from within this airy soundscape as if from a dream. The mood becomes dense and ominous on “Happy Song,” as the Congo’s drumming and chanting meets Stallones’ signature loop-based sonic architecture: reverb-soaked guitars, random electronic squiggles, meditative chimes, and extra-deep bass.
The Congos have consistently proven their collective vocal prowess throughout their 35 year career, and here there is a lovely harmony between vocalists Roy Johnson, Watty Burnett, Kenroy Fyffe and Cedric Myton: “Let us sing this happy song, let us sing my favorite song,” the four optimistically sing, almost in spite of the gloomy music produced by their collaborators. Unfortunately, when combined with the busy, jarring sounds, the soothing simplicity of the repeated chant and the impressive falsetto-baritone-tenor harmonizing are buried and lost.
Most of Icon Give Thank’s 43 minutes suffers from this problem, as The Congos struggle to break through the murky sonic storm created by Stallones and Gengras. The only exceptions are “Invocation,” in which the four return to the communal chant that began the album, and the electro-warble-meets-acoustic-guitar finale, “Thanks And Praise.” On both, the two musicians provide their elders enough space to spread out, breathe deep, and groove.
Ultimately, Icon Give Thank sounds more like a Sun Araw album with a few guest vocalist features rather than a mutually beneficial musical conversation. The Congos were obviously put on their heels and forced to adapt to many alien sounds and bizarre textures, but there’s no musical proof that the young Americans were similarly torn from their comfort zones.