The Foreign Exchange: Leave It All Behind
Hard Boiled

The words “old school” come to mind when listening to The Foreign Exchange's sophomore effort Leave It All Behind but, in truth, there's nothing old about it. If it at all seems that way, it's because there's such a regrettable dearth of its blissfully soulful sound being produced these days. In short, there's nothing retrograde about the material—how could there be when the music's so fresh? For those unfamiliar with the project, The Foreign Exchange is a collaboration involving producer Nicolay (who already issued one of the year's better albums in the splendid Timeline) and singer-songwriter and vocalist Phonte. The two hooked up in 2002 via the hip-hop community site and thereafter traded files for a year (Nicolay residing in his native Holland at the time and Phonte in Raleigh, North Carolina), leading up to 2004's Connected release. Though Nicolay (now ensconced in Wilmington, North Carolina ) has bridged the geographical gap, the new release distances itself from the debut's hip-hop focus for a more pronounced “lover's rock” brand of soul. Don't get the wrong idea: traces of hip-hop are clearly evident, and so too are elements of funk (even echoes of drum'n'bass in “If This Is Love”), but the new music's rooted in soul of a thoroughly warm and emotive vintage.

Nicolay and Phonte build up lush, multi-tiered arrangements using horns, keyboards, beats, bass, and, most of all, layer upon layer of lead and harmony vocals (Phonte's supplemented by those of Darien Brockington, Yahzarah, and Muhsinah). Hear, for example, how breezily the glorious opener “Daykeeper” interweaves its female (“When the sun rises he watches over me”) and male (“It's not like it was before and she can't keep me anymore / She loves me”) leads and then bolsters them with entrancing harmonizing. The soulful hip-hop of “Something To Behold” is perhaps even more irresistible, especially when the heavenly chorus kicks in (“It's just something inside us / Something that guides us / Closer to truth”). A hip-hop feel also emerges during the blissful “Take Off the Blues” while a lilting funk groove buoys “I Wanna Know” and the second half of “All or Nothing / Coming Home to You.” Though much of the material is downtempo, jazz-inflected polyrhythms swing mightily in “Sweeter Than You” and the cover of Stevie Wonder's “If She Breaks Your Heart” (enhanced by a string arrangement from 4hero production team member Marc Mac) is as beautiful as anything else on the album. The material sometimes exemplifies traces of Prince's ballad style and there are moments that suggest kinship with Five Deez and even John Legend (the vocal in the joyful title cut). In truth discussing individual songs seems almost pointless when the album as a whole offers so many pleasures. Suffice it to say, Leave It All Behind can't be recommended highly enough and deserves to be considered one of the year's best releases, regardless of genre.

December 2008