California-based musician Sun Araw produces experimental psychedelic music that owes an obvious debt to Jamaican dub producers. The Congos is a veteran group of reggae musicians whose output includes one of the greatest roots reggae albums of all time, “The Heart of the Congos.” That album turns 25 years old this year, a possible inspiration for this collaborative project, entitled “Icon Give Thank.” Released through RVNG INTL., this record is a prime example of the merits of international and cross-genre cooperation between musicians.
The music contained here is overtly strange but I hesitate to label it experimental. It has many of the production trappings of traditional dub reggae, but avoids sounding like a retread. “Icon Give Thank” is an undertaking of an almost mythical scope, or it certainly sounds that way. Its production style evokes reverence and deep history but it is enthralling even for a relative newcomer to reggae.
The album’s tone and lyrical focus are both immediately established in a prelude track entitled “New Binghi.” The first words you hear are “Clap your hands, all ye people! Shout unto Jah [God] with a voice of triumph!” What this is, then, is an album of ecstatic praise. Most of the lyrics are arranged as repeating phrases conveying thanks to God for blessings and protection. Despite the measured pace of the seven tracks, there is a palpable sense of grace in the delivery and presentation. The Congos’ claim to fame was, besides their aptitude for strong songwriting and apt choice of producers, the angelic voices possessed by falsetto Cedric Myton and tenor Ashanti Johnson.
Sun Araw’s production bathes the songs in a dense haze of drones, extended bass booms, and sunny but sweaty psychedelia. In sharp contrast to the clarity and straightforwardness of the vocals, which are preserved well in the mix despite the tumult, other instruments are hazy and often indistinct. Building a trance-like draw over their long running time, the songs absorb you into their vastness when they succeed. When they fail, as in the case of the draggy, druggy “Jungle,” the results are still, to this pair of ears, wonderful in a way. That song spends too much time mired, spinning its wheels. That said, none of the songs are bad, and they are so packed with aural information that most of them only grow in value over repeated listenings. Singing along with the album’s incantations and choruses enhanced my enjoyment greatly as well.
If “Jungle” is the relative failure of the lot, then “Sunshine” is the crowning jewel. The shortest of the songs not counting the introduction, this song is built around a simple lyric: “Sunshine/Daytime/Sunshine is holy light.” Waves of droning guitars and a maxed-out low end are effective on both the mind and body. Being more of a night owl myself, I had yet to here a satisfactory ode to our neighbor star. “Wake up! Wake up!” the voice urges, and I admit that every time I listen to the song I am helpless but to obey. Behind the voices there is a world of lively detail, enough for several songs of its relatively slender five minute running time.
On “Icon Give Thank,” simplicity and complexity, fog and sunshine, clear voices and long drones coexist in a healthy tension. There is nothing comfortable about this record. It challenges patience at times, credulity at others. Sun Araw proves himself a capable producer and The Congos shine as always. Little in the world sounds like this album, and nothing that does quite measures up. Diving into this Jamaican/American curiosity would be well worth a little risk.