The Foreign Exchange: Dear Friends: An Evening with The Foreign Exchange
Essentially “The Foreign Exchange Unplugged,” Dear Friends: An Evening with The Foreign Exchange perpetuates the embrace of acoustic soul that was so much a part of the group's last album Authenticity. As such, we're a long way removed from the raw hip-hop stylings of the group's earlier work. Not that that's a bad thing, necessarily, as the music on this latest recording is as refreshing as a warm summer breeze, and its appeal is bolstered by the fact that so few groups aside from The Foreign Exchange are waving this genre flag, so to speak. That the recording's sole cover is of a James Taylor song rather than something harder-edged tells you something about the mellow vibe The Foreign Exchange's courting with the set.
The concert, which was held on February 20th, 2011 at SoundPure Studios in Durham, North Carolina before a small but appreciative crowd, presents the music in a bare-bones manner, with the audience made to feel like guests visiting with the group for a laid-back session. Laid-back doesn't mean ragged, however, as the band's playing is certainly tight enough. “Fight For Love” and “All Roads” receive elegant and soulful readings, the band already in fine form on these opening tracks. Three songs in, the breezy “Take Off The Blues” takes things to another level of soulfulness when the voices of Phonte and Sy Smith navigate the song's syncopated swing so gracefully, especially during the chorus (“Kick off you're shoes, take off the blues and come to me / So much to do, so much is meant for you to see / You might as well, come a little closer / Girl, don't make me wait too long for you”). The band gives “Daykeeper” a good-time, countrified treatment that goes over well in the live setting, though to these ears the approach trivializes the song somewhat and renders it less appealing than the original version.
Phonte's an affable and congenial host—funny, too—and (as the DVD shows) does a pretty good Michael McDonald impression too. He's in fine voice, as are backup vocalists Sy Smith and Jeanne Jolly, who add lovely harmonic colour throughout. Both could, however, have been featured a tad more, especially Jolly (a lack rectified by her lead role on the studio track “Steal Away”). When she is given a solo spotlight during “Laughing At Your Plans,” she leaves her sensual mark on every word and makes each stirring moment count. Smith, of course, brings a formidable reputation of her own to the group, and when she takes the lead on “Greatest Weapon Of All Time,” a Zo! cut taken from 2010's SunStorm, the album feels invigorated by the personality she brings to the material; the soulful counterpoint between Smith and Phonte on “I Wanna Know” is also one of the set's sweetest moments. The band provides supple support throughout, with Zo!'s piano a prominent presence and the arrangements fleshed out by the acoustic guitar playing of Nicolay and Chris Boerner, Kush El-Amin's acoustic bass, and Tim Scott Jr.'s percussion.
There are some slight differences between the CD and DVD versions. The CD, for example, gives too much time to Phonte's band introductions which, though clearly heartfelt, are best left to the liner notes; the section in question is thankfully excluded from the DVD, as is Phonte's overlong intro to the group's solid rendering of James Taylor's “Something In The Way She Moves.” Musically speaking, however, the two presentations essentially line up track for track, and the DVD in particular moves with dispatch from one song to the next (it runs about forty-two minutes, whereas the CD is nearly an hour long, in part because of the inclusion of the studio songs).
The two new studio songs that appear after the CD's live material obviously feel a tad anomalous in this primarily live context but are nevertheless strongly appealing—even more so in hinting that the group's next collection might be a return to the polished electronic soul style of the pre-Authenticity days. Jolly's luscious vocals (lead and background) on “Steal Away” are beautiful, and the ballad's brooding tone offers a marked but not unappealing contrast to the sunniness of the live material, while Nicolay provides a funky, synth-laden backing for Phonte and backup singers Amber and Paris Strother on the concluding “All The Kisses.”
All in all, it's a great primer for listeners not yet familiar with the band's music, with songs primarily taken from 2008's Leave It All Behind and 2010's Authenticity. The release also gets high marks for presentation, with the deluxe, large-format package housing the CD and DVD plus a full-colour booklet featuring photos and lyrics to the two new songs.