The Foreign Exchange - Love in Flying Colors

The Foreign Exchange
ForeignExchange-LoveFlying.jpg
Click on CD cover
to listen or purchase

“I think this one is going to be über up your alley.” For a contrarian critic, more ominous words were never spoken. That they came from the management of the Grammy-nominated, North Carolina-based electro-soul collective, The Foreign Exchange (+FE), only gave me further pause. Considering I’d never given a project from +FE a negative review (though I have kvetched a time or two about Phonte’s wavering sense of pitch and privately declared that their Dear Friends: An Evening With The Foreign Exchange doesn’t hold a candle to their actual live show), I couldn’t help but wonder if this time would be different. Had Raleigh’s dynamic duo of rapper/singer Phonte and Dutch producer/arranger, Nicolay, finally made an album that I’d hate?

“I think this one is going to be über up your alley.” For a contrarian critic, more ominous words were never spoken. That they came from the management of the Grammy-nominated, North Carolina-based electro-soul collective, The Foreign Exchange (+FE), only gave me further pause. Considering I’d never given a project from +FE a negative review (though I have kvetched a time or two about Phonte’s wavering sense of pitch and privately declared that their Dear Friends: An Evening With The Foreign Exchange doesn’t hold a candle to their actual live show), I couldn’t help but wonder if this time would be different. Had Raleigh’s dynamic duo of rapper/singer Phonte and Dutch producer/arranger, Nicolay, finally made an album that I’d hate?

So far for 2013, the prodigal sons and their small record label that could have been on something of a roll. A double-disc remix project, The ReWorks, easily soared over most first quarter releases and remains one of the most exciting event projects of the year. The much anticipated single producer compilation release, ManMade, by keyboardist/producer Zo! of the +FE, was the belle of the spring season. Their previous three studio releases, 2004’s Connected, 2010’s Authenticity, and their perfect neo-classic, 2008’s Leave It All Behind (LIAB), have won them international fandom, a Grammy nomination for “DayKeeper (featuring Muhsinah)” from LIAB, and at least one Top 25 R&B charter in Authenticity. Other independent studio releases and mixtapes from their musical family, including projects from Median, YahZarah, Jeanne Jolly, Chantae Cann, and Darien Brockington, and solo outings from both Phonte and Nicolay, the core and founders of +FE, have been a series of hits and misses. Still even with the swing and misses, never could it be said the recordings weren’t stamped with the outfit’s signature sound and soulful polish. Even the highly polarizing Authenticity (I’m pro #TeamAuthenticity, BTW) with its unrelenting melancholia and brutal honesty was nothing less than brilliant in its arrangements and productions.

So, it seemed an album devoted to love’s light in flight seemed like a needed contrast to the somber overlays of Authenticity, and, as presumed, should be right up my alley. And largely, it is. Love in Flying Colors is lyrically as insightful, reflective and unabashedly truthful as anything found on the collective’s increasingly enviable catalog. Musically, Nicolay has ensured the new project will be, for fans, like sliding your feet back into warm and comfortable house slippers. His soft, synthy electro-soul sounds of Love in Flying Colors are welcome and familiar with its layered intricacies engineered to be less pronounced than on the bold, undeniable arrangements of LIAB. There is the usual blender of jazz, electronica, hip hop and soul arrangements with a nod to ‘80s new age that has become the hallmark of +FE. Love and the modern-day relationship is often the theme of a +FE project, and this is no different in many respects. Having mastered their formula and settled into their sound, +FE here is on cruise control, but for those paying attention, it’s not always an easy ride.

What is different is that Love in Flying Colors lacks the laugh out loud lyrical humor a maturing Phonte usually infuses into at least one song or interlude on a +FE project, though his winning charm and more consistent vocals are on proud display. This growth isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but there is an older feel as a result of the group’s lack of play on this project when compared to previous rollouts.

For an album that has been somewhat marketed as a lover’s album, there are still some biting moments that sting, like the “she’s just better” refrain about a new love to an old one and the upper-cut rap by Phonte on “Better,” featuring a suitably crooning Eric Roberson in the guest slot. Even on an album largely about new love, the remnants of Authenticity persist as a gray overcast in the project’s overall tone, despite plenty of percussive rhythms working to lift the mood on house cuts like “The Moment” and mid-tempos like “On A Day Like Today.” There is a muted, less awed nature to this take on young love; one of experience. Maybe it’s all the philosophical discourse on searching for place as on the proposal, “Call It Home,” and the near cynical dare of “show me the place where I belong/and show me a love that I can feel/tell me that you’ll stay by my side for a life/not just a moment,” that says this is a love flight experienced by those who’ve already had their heart broken a time or ten. As the man in love a second or fifth time around, Phonte all but says as much on the Carmen Rodgers supported opener, “If I Knew Then,” and underlines it on the light funk two-step on infatuation risk that is the Sy Smith duet, “Right After Midnight.” Even on “Can’t Turn Around,” the closest to a title track the album possesses, a Gwen Bunn-backed Phonte urges his lover to keep moving forward on this skyway to love, and not look back in fear, lest all be lost.

Maybe this is an album for the un-partnered or newly partnered, the single or dating dreamer who has been heartbroken, but still hoping and reflecting on the perils, while brazenly claiming the bounty that love can be. The contemplative “Dreams are Made for Two,” starring a marvelous Carlitta Durand on supporting vocals, seems as much a cut of courtship as it is a reflection on why this man wants this relationship to work. What is clear, despite this project’s hesitations on the subject, is that its authors want love and relationships to work. The mature, interrogative nature of that desire doesn’t always lend itself to light or catchy material, certainly not the sweeping romance of LIAB, but like most slow walks to something deeper and more meaningful, it’s worth the time, investment and yes, risk, for something more likely to endure. Highly Recommended.

By L. Michael Gipson

 

 
Album of the Month - Cecile McLorin Salvant - Dreams and Daggers
Listening Room - Will Downing - Soul Survivor
Listening Room - Lizz Wright - Grace
Listen Now! - "Fresh Soul" playlist from SoulTracks

Leave a comment!