Spin Cycle

You heard of neo-soul, yeah? R&B duo The Foreign Exchange makes what I like to call “prog-soul.” What initially drew me to them musically was the fact that, musically, some of their soundscapes would be just as home on a Genesis or Yes record. Which is kinda crazy, because I fucking hate prog rock. I guess if you combine that sound with warm, soulful singing, navel-gazing lyrics, some jazz vibes and a pinch of hip-hop flavor, you get hotness. Who knew?

"Love In Flying Colors" is the new album by R&B duo The Foreign Exchange.

“Love In Flying Colors” is the new album by R&B duo The Foreign Exchange.

Anyhow, less than a year after dropping a remix set that was less like a compilation and more like a new album, Phonte and Nicolay return with an actual new album called Love In Flying Colors. It sticks fairly close to the template set by the three previous FE+ studio albums, but that isn’t a bad thing. While I’ll always give props to those who experiment artistically, sometimes it’s just as good for an artist (or a group, or a duo) to know their lane and stick to it. Love songs? Hazy synths? Phonte’s every-man singing voice? All here, and all good.

Generally speaking, if an album begins with a Stevie Wonder quote, you’re in for a good time. The opening lines of “If I Knew Then” are the opening lines of Stevie’s “Love’s In Need Of Love Today,” and there’s some relativity. Nicolay has obviously learned much about creating soundscapes from the genius’s pioneering work of the ’70s, while Phonte’s songwriting (if not singing) style definitely has echoes of Stevie.

Phonte (who should be in the running for best singer/rapper around, maybe a step behind Cee-Lo Green for the crown) is coming from a somewhat more upbeat place lyrically. Previous FE+ albums, not to mention his own slammin’ solo album-have contained a certain level of cynicism, so is it safe to say that songs like “Right After Midnight” and “Call It Home” reveal that our man is sprung? Who the hell knows. Whatever the case, it’s good to hear him happy, even though there’s still a measure of trepidation and hand-wringing involved in this happiness.

Love In Flying Colors boasts a level of consistency that you don’t find in a lot of albums today. For my money, the key tracks are “Right After Midnight,” which has a vibe similar to Nick Martinelli’s productions of Loose Ends and Stephanie Mills in the mid Eighties, and “The Moment,” which is a straight up dancefloor filler. No, the FE+ hasn’t gone EDM (although they’re closer to that genre than many R&B artists who dabble.) This is late-night/Tony Humphries spinning on Kiss-FM or WBLS/Larry Levan-esque/proto-house goodness. Plus, unlike most modern-day dance music, there’s melody and quality lyricism. Add in a couple of weird key changes for the music nerds (I swear after the first time I listened to it, I was like “am I high?”) and you’ve got yourself a winner.

I’ll close this review with a story. Those of you familiar with The Foreign Exchange are aware that Phonte used to be a member of celebrated North Carolina-based rap outfit Little Brother. My friend Eric was a huge fan and I spent a good couple of years trying to figure out what I was missing. It’s not that I actively disliked them, I just didn’t find anything interesting about them. If you’d have told me then that a decade later that one of my favorite current R&B acts was centered around Phonte, I might have slapped you. Or told Phonte to start singing earlier (or just go solo.)

Regardless, what I’m trying to say is that The Foreign Exchange is dope, and Love In Flying Colors is as consistently enjoyable as one should expect. If you’re already a fan, most likely you’re already bumping this album. If you’re not yet a fan, what are you waiting for?

Grade: B+

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