The Foreign Exchange – Authenticity – Review

29 10 2010

Authenticity is a tightly crafted collection of atmospheric electro-soul and pop that could well see Nicolay and Phonte surpass their earlier Grammy nomination. It’s a brave record, short and to the point, both lyrically and musically. I’m reminded of the writer’s maxim: edit, edit and edit again! There’s not an ounce of fat on Authenticity, each track is delivered succinctly, right from the heart of the matter. It’s a welcome antidote to the usual bloated R&B from across the pond.

The album’s overarching soundscape expands on the music Nicolay explored on his Shibuya release, marrying it exquistely to Phonte’s songwriting to produce a soul album that defies the critic’s usual sophistic genre classifications. For music lovers, that’s certainly worth a round of applause.

The Last Fall is a sombre opener, reminiscent of LIAB’s House of Cards, with Phonte declaring that he’ll never fall in love again. Lyrically captivating, Phonte explores the disappointments of love on Authenticity. It’s an approach that certainly distances him from the usual juvenile preoccupations of the modern R&B singer (R Kelly’s Bangin the Headboard, anyone? No, I thought not.) but perhaps leaves those with sunnier dispositions pining for Percy Miracles…

Authenticity’s title track turns up the darkness calling to mind a sombre Michael Mann midnight scene, our hero (Phonte) cruising the wet city streets, a chopper between his legs, pink neon reflected in the puddles, alone with his demons. Some of the music on Authenticity truly feels cinematic. It’s surely only a matter of time before Hollywood comes knocking. Although on this evidence, it’s unlikely to be Disney.

Eyes To The Sky is a short, but compelling, melancholic little twist of a cut on which Phonte bares his soul. At a minute and a half it’s woefully short. There’s undoubtedly the germ of a greater song there, but all is forgiven as the track segues into the Pat Metheny Group vibe of the standout cut, All Roads, a melodic pop-jazz excursion that, with the right support, could break Foreign Exchange into a whole different league.

Fight for Love continues in a similar vein, Zo!’s warm keyboard work providing a foil to Phonte’s melancholic delivery and lyrics with an astral synth solo.

The next three cuts move into more familiar territory, each of them capturing that beloved LIAB vibe. We’ve posted our love for Maybe She’ll Dream of Me previously, but it still stands out as one of the strongest cuts on the album, that devastatingly simple synth and piano outro thick with emotion. Don’t Wait features FE alumni R&B singer, Darien Brockington on a much bouncier groove which wouldn’t sound out of place on YahZarah’s excellent Ballad of Purple St. James. Make Me a Fool delights, with indie darling Jesse Boykins III and rapper Median on a crisp cut worthy of multiple rewinds.

Everything Must Go kicks off with a synth groove right out of Zombie Flesh Eaters before moving into an electro-acoustic folk cut reminiscent of Terry Callier’s most fulfilling work. As with the aforementioned Eyes to the Sky, I’d love to hear a much longer version of this track.

Laughing At Your Plans, with Chantae Cann, kicks a little differently with some nice country flourishes and a James Taylor feel. It’s the kind of cut you’d maybe expect to hear on a Lizz Wright or Norah Jones album, perhaps hinting at a sound FE may explore going forward. It ably illustrates that, despite having harnessed a successful musical formula, Phonte and Nicolay are still eager to experiment; they haven’t fallen into a comfortable groove.

This City Ain’t The Same is a beautiful pop song featuring YahZarah on lead vocals. It’s a perfect close to the album, her sweet tones paradoxically both a neat contrast to Phonte’s darker delivery and an echo of the songs that have come before it.

Authenticity amply lives up to the high expectations created by previous Foreign Exchange releases. It’s easy to forget that it’s only the group’s third release, given how highly revered they are on the indie soul scene. When you consider how much Nic and Phonte’s music has developed over the course of those three albums, Authenticity is nothing short of outstanding.

Buy Authenticity at the Foreign Exchange Music Store.


Soul Togetherness 2010 – Best Soul Compilation of the Year?

5 10 2010

It’s that time of the year when us soul fans get all a quiver at the prospect of the forthcoming Soul Togetherness compilation. And 2010’s edition doesn’t look like it’ll disappoint one little bit. Packed to the rafters with monster tunes, Ralph Tee and Richard Searling at Expansion appear to have pulled off another blinder, spoiling the soul fraternity with a set of quality cuts to keep the incumbent winter freeze at bay.

The album kicks of with the modern 80s anthem Back for More by the irrepressible Cool Million featuring old school legend Eugene Wilde. Not a week seems to pass without SoulCuts making reference to Rob Hardt and his cohorts. For my money, it’s the best modern soul track of the year, having rather quickly attained classic status among the soul cognoscenti. It’s brave to kick-off the album with such a storming cut, but the compilers certainly maintain the high quality throughout with SoulCuts favourites coming thick and fast, including the delightful Brian Culbertson / Kenny Lattimore collaboration Another Love, Zo!’s modern rare groove Greatest Weapon of All Time, Jonathan Butler’s greatest ever tune So Strong, that wicked Joey Negro re-rub of the old Matt Bianco tune Half A Minute that’s been blasted all summer, a couple of sweet cuts from Carmen Hendricks and everybody’s favourite jazzy-soul songstress Adriana Evans, the awesome Angela Johnson on the uptempo winner Better and the equally fantastic Richard Earnshaw and Kenny Thomas coming together for a chunky piece of contemporary soulful disco in the shape of the dancefloor filler Waiting.

There are a few tracks on the compilation that I haven’t yet heard, so I’m really looking forward to getting my paws on a copy as soon as I can. However, one track that was unfamiliar to me before I saw the tracklisting is Al Olive’s Slow Down. This cut embodies the spirit of Luther Vandross at the height of his powers and is worth the price of the album alone. It sounds a little like a cross between My Sensitivity and Any Love. That’s a recommendation in my book! I just can’t get enough of this tune. Have a listen, I’m sure you’ll concur!

You can buy it over at Amazon. You know you want it!

Oh! And the compilation also includes my favourite Michael Henderson joint, the divine Take Me, I’m Yours with Rena Scott. I can’t wait to see him perform this at the Luxury Soul Weekender at the start of 2011 alongside other live acts Jean Carne and Cool Million and a host of quality soul DJs. Nice!

New SoulCut of the Week – Foreign Exchange – Maybe She’ll Dream of Me

6 09 2010

We’re pretty much in love with the whole Foreign Exchange clique over here at SoulCuts and cannot wait until October and their third album, Authenticity. Ramping up the hype for the upcoming release, Phonte and Nicolay launched the first move in their assault last week, leaking the new single, Maybe She’ll Dream of Me to the interwebs. Fans of Leave It All Behind will be chuffed to bits with this new cut that combines Phonte’s singing and rapping to dope effect. The production snaps crisp like a fresh bag of roof-of-the-mouth scarring Kettle Chips, with some nicely funky off-kilter programming and synth work underpinning Phonte’s tale of aspirational love that ends with Zo! floating in like some super-hero keyboard cat on the devastatingly simple piano outro. It’s a confident and sophisticated cut that augers well for Authenticity.

Take a listen to the tune right here and then whizz off to FE’s own site to download Maybe She’ll Dream Of Me. You know it makes sense!

A Tribute to the Mizell Brothers – SunStorm Week

28 07 2010

Zo!’s SunStorm is gathering plaudits far and wide, with many fans singling out the jazz-funk collaboration with Phonte, Flight of the Blackbyrd, for the highest praise. The tune has been billed as a tribute to the Mizell Brothers and George Duke. Given all the interest in the track, and SunStorm in general, SoulCuts took a moment to look back at the work of the Mizell Brothers that has undoubtedly influenced that majestic Zo! cut, Flight of the Blackbyrd.

The Mizell brothers, Fonce and Larry, became synonymous with epic jazz-funk productions in the mid-1970s, perhaps best known for their work with Donald Byrd. Under the tutelage of Byrd himself, at Howard University in the Sixties, the Mizell Brothers released their first production on a short-lived self-owned label, Hog; the now incredibly rare northern soul track Baby I Want You by The Moments.

Following graduation, Fonce Mizell joined Motown and became part of the ‘Corporation’, the writing and production team that consisted of Fonce, Motown producer Deke Richards, Freddie Perren and label boss, Berry Gordy. Their most famous work was undoubtedly with the Jackson 5, via unstoppable soul classics I Want You Back (originally called I Wanna Be Free and written for Gladys Knight) and ABC.

After leaving Motown in the early 70s, Larry and Fonce reacquainted with Donald Byrd and started a period of writing and producing what would become seminal jazz-funk albums such as Donald Byrd’s Street Lady, Places and Spaces and Caricatures, Bobbi Humphrey’s Blacks and Blues and Johnny Hammond’s 1975 Milestone album, Gears, containing my personal favorite Mizell Brothers track, Los conquistadores chocolates.

I came to Donald Byrd and the wider work of the Mizell brothers through hip-hop records that sampled their funk-fueled, soulful and jazzy, layered arrangements. It’s a trajectory many will recognize. Sing it with me, ‘You are not alone, I am…’ OK, scrap that. Think I just lost some soul points. Damn! Hey, maybe some Tribe will restore the balance? Here goes:

Thanks Q-Tip.

So, I used to listen to ATCQ’s Footprints, from the People’s Instinctive Travels album, and Main Source’s Looking at the Front Door on repeat in the early 90s, up in my room on the mighty Philips Roller.

But as much as I enjoyed the beats and Tip’s and Large Professor’s flows, it was the sample, this otherworldly groove, that had me transfixed. I was nothing but a straight-up hip-hop lover to that point (and still rocking much Troop, which didn’t look all that fly in a parochial English village) but I needed to hunt that groove down.

Everything changed musically for me in ‘92 when I purchased the cassette (!), The Best of Donald Byrd and discovered Think Twice, a cut that contained that break used on the Main Source track and ATCQ’s Footprints, and a whole host of other amazing tunes seamlessly blending jazz, soul and funk.

From that point I became obsessed with the Mizell Brothers, collecting all their key mid-70s work and playing them to death. My obsession led to discovering other jazz-funk artists of the same era, Lonnie Liston Smith, Roy Ayers, Ronnie Laws, Crusaders, Gil Scott Heron, all informed by the outstanding Mastercuts Jazz-Funk series of the early 90s.

If you’re a fan of Zo! but never checked out the Mizell Brothers, take a listen to the above tunes and go grab a copy of The Best of Donald Byrd as an introduction. Believe me, it’s life-changing.

Even Marvin had love for the Mizells!

For more schooling, head over to the Red Bull Music Academy for a 2 hour lecture! Larry Mizell even fills us in on the failings and unreliability of PowerPoint. Gotta love the Mizell Brothers. I’m calling Larry and Fonce the next time my printer goes on the blink, or my proxy settings go awry!

For more details on the inspirations behind the tracks on SunStorm, check Zo!’s own insightful blog: Musical Architecture.
Oh! And check out the SoulCuts review of SunStorm right HERE.

Zo! Damn Good! – SunStorm Review

26 07 2010

For his Summer 2010 release, SunStorm, Zo! has set quality control to Pixar levels, delivering a consistently brilliant album on which each and every cut demands repeated play. It’s a unified producer’s album from an artist with an educated soul sensibility and the desire to make contemporary music, rather than yet another tired exercise in retro.

And it’s certainly not just another Foreign Exchange album under a different name, not that I’d be complaining! The album may kick off with an FE soundalike in the Phonte starring Greater Than The Sun, but this feels like an entry-point for those unfamiliar with Zo!’s previous solo work who may have purchased the album through that Foreign Exchange connection. It’s a great introduction to SunStorm and a damn fine track to boot but it gives way to an album that is altogether more musically soulful and jazzy than the equally awesome Leave it All Behind.

It’s rare that an album with so many guest vocalists plays like a solo album, but SunStorm achieves this. As producer, instrumentalist (the keyboard playing is just fire!) and writer, Zo!’s musical personality is deep in each and every tune on the 12-track album. Cream cuts include the jazz-funk of the Mizell Brothers tribute, Flight of the Blackbyrd, the rare-groove of Greatest Weapon of All Time (with the irrepressible Sy Smith), the deliciously stretched out jazzy bedroom goodness of MakeLuv2Me (with one of the best vocal performances on the album from Monica Blaire), the 4hero sounding Free Your Mind (with Lady Alma on vocals) and the future-soul meets vintage Bobbi Humphrey of Say How You Feel / For Leslie. But it’s all good. Very good.

SunStorm is a 2010 love note to classic soul and jazz funk which warrants comparisons with legends like Roy Ayers and Quincy Jones for its ability to convey a singular musical vision despite an extensive (and impressive) cast list. It’s an album you NEED in your collection and one we’ll be talking about as a candidate for 2010’s best come December.

You can buy downloads and CDs at the Foreign Exchange Music Store. Tell ’em SoulCuts sent ya! Spread the love!

And take a listen to the whole album right HERE!

Zo! This Could Be The Night – Bring on the SunStorm!

6 07 2010

OK, people. So let’s get officially excited about the upcoming release of Zo!’s SunStorm (27th July, didn’t you know?) with the video for the single This Could Be The Night featuring Erro, Big Pooh and D-Brock. Zo! is on some Quincy Jones Jr business with this laidback, crisp, soulful steppin’ tune.

Bounce on over to the Foreign Exchange Music Store to grab a copy of the Deluxe Pre-Order Package, and for a free download of the aforementioned single and Zo!’s hot collaboration with Sy Smith, The Greatest Weapon Of All Time. We’ll be sure to hit you up with a review as soon as we lay our mitts on the album.