But do you remember what it sounded like?
Review of Bobby Womack’s and the Congos’ new records
These days, when younger musicians lure their heroes into the studio to collaborate on an album, one goal seems paramount: to introduce the aging idol to a new generation of fans. As for the albums themselves, they hardly ever rival the finest hours of either party. You can almost hear the clouds of hero worship and/or ego management hanging over the proceedings. Instead of throwing down creative hurdles, the students handle their teachers with great care.
But that’s starting to change. “The Bravest Man in the Universe” is the first studio album from 68-year-old R&B legend Bobby Womack in more than a decade. It’s a three-way summit featuring Damon Albarn of Blur and Gorillaz fame, and Richard Russell, the British producer and head of XL Recordings.
Their approach is bold. Instead of matching Womack’s voice with old-school brass or a toe-tappy funk rhythm, Albarn and Russell parachute him into alien landscapes — sleek electronic tracks that feel like fragmented hip-hop. The results evoke an image of Womack wandering some sci-fi metropolis far, far away from 1950s Cleveland, where he first began singing alongside his brothers.
That juxtaposition — vintage voice, futuristic beats — is nothing new in British dance music, whose artists frequently sample dusty American soul records. This album advances the idea, though. Instead of using the human voice as a mere building block, the singer can respond to the song itself.
Womack does his best. His pipes are far from their peak, but he sings with an enthusiasm that still manages to jump off the speakers. “Please Forgive My Heart” finds him processing a guilt that refuses to loosen its grip. Over pulsing synthesizers and stuttering drum machines, he pleads, “Where did I lose control?”
Unfortunately, the remaining nine tracks are more admirable than enjoyable. For an album like this to work, the songs need to be as commanding as the guy who’s singing them, and Womack’s stewards don’t come through with the hooks. Womack has said “The Bravest Man in the Universe” is the best album he’s ever released. As a songwriter, Albarn can’t say the same.
“Icon Give Thank,” the recent album from reggae greats the Congos and experimental musicians Sun Araw and M. Geddes Gengras, is a much stranger and more successful affair.
The collaboration was arranged by Rvng Intl., a New York-based label that’s been inviting boundary-bending musicians to record with their somewhat obscure forebears. Rvng has already paired new age explorer Laraaji with Queens soundscapers Blues Control, and minimalist composer David Borden with a handful of laptop vanguardists, including Oneohtrix Point Never and Laurel Halo.
The results have been consistently interesting. Without the veterans counting on the whippersnappers to reboot their careers, they can get down to the messy business of envelope-pushing.
And so Geddes Gengras and Sun Araw’s Cameron Stallones jetted off to Jamaica to connect with the Congos, currently a four-member group whose 1977 album “Heart of the Congos” features some of the most paralyzing vocal harmonies ever captured by a microphone. (The capturing was done by Lee “Scratch” Perry, the dub architect known for his pioneering production techniques.)
The American noiseniks seem unfazed by the group’s legend. Across the album’s eight tracks, they remove the dense bass lines that provide dub reggae’s sonic spine and nudge the singers’ voices into a cosmic slop of psychedelic electronics. The Congos croon like men on uneven footing. Because they are. This is freaky, fantastically formless music.
But just because it’s weird doesn’t mean it isn’t sweet. We’ve got six very different musicians linking arms and bravely marching off into the unknown, here. Isn’t that warmer and fuzzier than your usual trans-generational “Kumbaya”?
Bobby Womack performs at the Birchmere on Aug 28.
Bobby Womack: “Please Forgive My Heart”; The Congo, Sun Araw and M. Geddes Gengras: “Happy Song,” “Thanks and Praise.”