The Foreign Exchange: Tales From the Land of Milk and Honey
With its fifth album Tales From the Land of Milk and Honey, The Foreign Exchange would appear to be vying for ‘Sexiest and Funkiest Album of 2015,' were such a title to exist, and with only a few months remaining in the year it's very likely a distinction the outfit will earn. Certainly the group's highly personalized take on R&B and modern-day soul has never sounded as effervescent as it does on this ten-song collection, one perfectly tailored as a beachside soundtrack and attuned to a summer frame of mind.
While frontman Phonte and multi-instrumentalist Nicolay are identified as the core group members, the impression left by the recording (and the cover photograph) is of a family-styled collective whose individual parts are equally critical to the group identity. In that regard, while Phonte might nominally be the lead vocalist, Shana Tucker and Carlitta Durand are also featured; furthermore, Tamisha Waden and Carmen Rodgers qualify as something considerably more than background singers, given the number of times the two share the lead. Rounding out the crew is keyboardist Zo!, an MVP of sorts whose musicianship and skills are well-known in the +FE Music universe.
Almost entirely absent on this breezy recording are the romantic ballads of the group's earlier days (the penultimate “Face in the Reflection” is very much in the spirit of that style). Instead, Tales From the Land of Milk and Honey often plays like a party album designed to keep the spirits up and overthinking at bay (cue the luscious chorus in “Asking for a Friend”: “Tell me where's the party / I don't know I'm asking for a friend / And if you like to party / We can hit the floor and go again”).
Musical pleasures are plentiful in tunes rich in resplendent vocalizing and multi-tiered arrangements. The opening “Milk and Honey” exudes a palpable joy in its warm Brazilian jazz-styled flow, all forward-rushing rhythms, round-robin vocals, strings, and Rhodes sprinkles. With its bleepy synths and drum machine-powered funk grooves, “Work It to the Top” revisits the Minneapolis sound of the ‘80s, especially when the group spritzes the cut with squiggly synth stabs straight out of Prince's early playbook and Phonte channels Larry Blackmon and Morris Day. A booming techno pulse drives the irresistibly catchy “Asking for a Friend,” as a vocal crew chants “Work” and Phonte affects a snooty delivery (“I have no time to socialize / You silly fools / I work / My fancy car, my lovely flat / No leisure time, no time for that / I work”), but the track's dynamic swing suggests that resistance is futile, even for those most committed to the working life. And with a chugging bass pulse powering its deep funk groove, the aptly titled “Body” will undoubtedly succeed in pulling dancers onto the club floor.
An occasional influence rises to the surface in a couple of cases—it's almost impossible not to think of Cameo and early Prince during “Work It to the Top,” for instance—but such moments play like affectionate nods rather than overly derivative steals. At day's end, The Foreign Exchange comes across as no one more than its own affable self on this thoroughly engaging outing. Never has the group sounded more confident and assured in presenting its vision than it does here.