Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Foreign Exchange - Leave It All Behind

The Foreign Exchange is the perfect name for the R&B/hip-hop duo of rapper Phonte and Dutch producer Nicolay. Their story is one made for the Internet Age. As a member of Little Brother, Phonte heard a beat by Nicolay on okayplayer.com and contacted him to ask if he could lay a rap over it. Nicolay agreed and soon the track ("Light It Up") was a b-side to "Whatever You Say" off Little Brother's 2003 album, The Listening. An intercontinental relationship was born. They began emailing and instant messaging back and forth. Nicolay would send finished beats and Phonte would then record the vocal tracks and send back the finished track. They did this enough to complete a full-length debut title Connected (2004). I heard that album way back when, and really really enjoyed it. It's a pretty mellow R&B/hip-hop album that doesn't just sound like two guys collaborating because it would be cool. Connected had a few tracks that had great production, with equally impressive lyrical content.

Today (10/14) The Foreign Exchange release their follow-up titled Leave It All Behind. Be warned that this album has a very different feel than its predecessor. The debut album had a few R&B (singing) tracks sprinkled throughout whereas this new album really focuses on Phonte's singing. This is distincly a R&B album. With that being said, it's probably one of the best R&B albums I've heard in a long time. Much of the R&B I hear is really fake and kinda schmaltzy (excuse the Yiddish). It just sounds fake, forced, and something out of a cliche bedroom scene from a movie. Leave It All Behind is different. It has at least an undercurrent of hip-hop production which makes the tracks more interesting and distinguishable. It's a production style that mixes influences from traditional hip-hop, to some elements of break beat, and even some things that are hard to categorize. Upon my first listen to the the album I was confused and kinda upset because I was expecting the album to be more of the same and a step forward. This album is a step forward, but maybe diagonally. Meaning, in a slightly different direction but still a progression. If you know that the album is - at its core - an R&B effort you will probably really really enjoy this album. If you think this is more like Connected you are going to be a bit disappointed, but if you have the patience to listen through you'll still hear great production and Phonte sing the best way he knows how.


Sunday, October 12, 2008

Ray LaMontagne - Gossip In The Grain

The last time I wrote about Ray LaMontagne I wasn't very generous, and begged for more from the budding blues-folk star. Known as a bit of a recluse, Ray lives someplace in the depths of Maine. It is probably someplace far from the "Real World" where people don't know who he is, and everyone calls each other by their first names...if there is anyone else around at all. He began his journey into the music world after hearing a Stephen Stills song ("Tree Top Flyer") on the radio as he was getting up to go to work. He heard the song and decided to stop working in a show factory and pursue a music career. Thank goodness. The music world owes him a huge thank you note. Ray LaMontagne is an artist that doesn't come along very often. He's talented, has a unique perspective, and his sound is distinctly his own. His voice is a raspier/huskier version of Van Morrison and Tim Buckley. His music most often is compared to his genre compatriot Iron & Wine for their folk/rock/blues similarities.

Gossip In The Grain (2008) (being released 10/14/08) is as different from Till the Sun Turns Black (2006), as it was from its predecessor Trouble (2004). Each album has seen a progression for Ray, which is quite a thing to say considering his debut album was quite good. At his heart LaMontagne is a storyteller. His way of telling stories through his lyrics is unquestionably one of the things listeners are drawn to during every listen. He usually sings about loneliness and romantic longing. These topics have been "done before" but rarely have they been sung with such drama and authenticity. He expresses his emotion with a depth and realness that would make grown men cry and women sigh. The bare-bones structures and initmacy of Till the Sun Turns Black isn't totally gone, but it has been replaced with more varied tunes that show a wide range of styles. The opener "You Are The Best Thing" is a rousing Memphis soul tune, followed by "Let It Be" with its folksier lilting soul groove (a song John Mayer will probably wish he wrote), then comes the intimate tune "Sarah" with a melody played on mandolin. Within the first three songs you can already tell that this is going to be a diverse and rich album. The use of strings, acoustic and electric guitars, horns, backing vocals, harmonica, and banjo are just more examples of the diversity employed by Ray and his exceptional producer Ethan Johns. There is even a song that could have been written by the Rolling Stones with its free-form blues riffs called "Henry Nearly Killed Me (It's a Shame)." This is really the record I had wanted to hear from LaMontagne. While I did end up enjoying Till the Sun Turns Black the more and more I listened to it, I think this album is going to have a higher place on the mantle, per se. It's a really great collection of songs that will satisfy all commers.

"You Are The Best Thing"