The Foreign Exchange:
Just as The Foreign Exchange's 2008 album Leave It All Behind stylistically departs from its predecessor Connected, so too does Authenticity shift away from Leave It All Behind. Connecting the dots between the three releases, one finds the Nicolay-and-Phonte-led outfit moving from hip-hop to exuberant soul-and-funk to, on the new release, mellow soul balladry and acoustic folk. Ironically, such a seemingly safe move turns out to be the most risky: rather than courting new listeners with in-your-face exuberance, the duo opt for something closer in spirit to…adult contemporary? Yes, it's true, and most of the time it works too.
Opening the album with the downcast “The Last Fall” signifies that the album won't be a repeat of Leave It All Behind. The dark synthesizers and the thudding drum tatoo clouding the horizon certainly say as much, though the song undergoes some degree of upturn when keyboards, strings, and harmonies flesh it out after the introduction. Up next is the title track, which one could imagine Prince singing in his familiar falsetto instead of Phonte (an association helped along by a stark drum pattern that's noticeably reminiscent of “When Doves Cry”). Whether heard alone or multiplied into a smooth choir, Phonte's in fine voice throughout, whether declaring his determination to never fall in love again (“The Last Fall”), declaiming his love for his partner (“All Roads”), or reflecting on the transient nature of life in general (“Everything Must Go”). The addition of Chantae Cann's sensual coo lifts the acoustic shuffle “Laughing at Your Plans,” so much so that one wishes she'd been included on more than just a single song (even more of a surprise is the steel guitar and violin that appear too—sounds that probably have never graced a song by The Foreign Exchange before). The creamy vocals of YahZarah likewise elevate the soulful closer “This City Ain't the Same Without You,” and again her presence is so appealing one wishes she'd been used more too. In keeping with the album's sometimes retro sound (classic, if you prefer), some tracks use synthesizers sparingly, with the emphasis instead on acoustic piano playing during “Fight For Love,” for example ; piano arpeggios and jazzy ride cymbal playing also provide an elegant backdrop to Phonte's smooth croon during the too-brief “Eyes to the Sky.”
Only once does Authenticity revisit the breezy soul stylings of Leave It All Behind, and not insignificantly “Maybe She'll Dream Of Me” is the track when the recording springs to life most of all. The loping, slightly bleepy hip-hop jam is all the more welcome for offering a break from the romantic balladry that otherwise dominates, and its mid-song rap is welcome too for being a rare interjection of same. The uptempo “Don't Wait” also impresses for boosting the album with four minutes of body-shaking funk. In some ways, the group's development across its three album releases is reminiscent of the change Stevie Wonder underwent in shifting from the relatively straight-up funk and soul of Innervisions and Fullfillingness' First Finale to the more artistically adventurous Songs in the Key of Life. Authenticity documents The Foreign Exchange's still-continuing drive towards defining itself, and one expects that the next chapter might very well find the group inhabiting a vastly different place from the one captured on Authenticity.