Review ·

Over the course of three studio albums, the Foreign Exchange, a collective built around the core duo of former Little Brother rapper/singer Phonte and Dutch producer Nicolay, has refined an increasingly austere brand of hip-hop/R&B that has taken them from the freewheeling braggadocio of 2004’s Connected to the sophisticated relationship melodrama of last year’s Authenticity. One element of the group dynamic that has gotten lost in the fray as the subject matter has grown up is the sense of humor. Onstage, Phonte is a veritable comedian, and his bandmates are his foils. That playful joie de vivre carries over to the music as well on their latest release, the live CD/DVD Dear Friends: An Evening with the Foreign Exchange, which documents an intimate acoustic set played for a group of friends and lucky fans in Phonte’s hometown of Durham, N.C. back in February.

The Foreign Exchange has been touring extensively since the October release of Authenticity (which charmed its way onto Prefix’s Best Albums of 2010 list in December), so Dear Friends finds a band in top form tearing through a series of hits, select numbers from individual members’ solo outings, and a James Taylor cover, aided by the singing talents of newcomers Jeanne Jolly, a North Carolinian songstress, and actress, singer, and songwriter Sy Smith. While the Foreign Exchange’s canon makes fantastic use of producer Nicolay’s icy electronics on record, Dear Friends takes advantage of the acoustic setting and imbues these songs with a kind of breezy, almost porchfront vibe.

Stripped of their synth-laced ambiance, tunes like “House of Cards” and “I Wanna Know” reveal the plaintive lovesick soul at their core. Zo!, the group’s secret weapon, shines on Authenticity cuts “Fight for Love” and “All Roads,” where his fleet piano work comes to the forefront. Leave It All Behind gems “Take Off the Blues” and “Daykeeper” are completely reworked, the former getting outfitted with a peppy bossa nova shuffle, and the latter transforming into a country number complete with feigned hillbilly accents and a brilliant faux chopped and screwed coda, much to the rapturous excitement of the audience.

The CD portion of Dear Friends is bolstered by two bonus studio cuts in the form of the stately, Jeanne Jolly led “Steal Away” and the wonky, funky “All the Kisses,” which features guest vocals from Paris & Amber Strother of R&B sister act KING. The DVD is beautifully shot in a setting that quite appropriately resembles a spacious living room. Dear Friends is the sight and sound of a group of talented and versatile musicians playing with its already fantastic sound for a confident, relaxed set of their trademark sophisticated soul.

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