Archive | July 2011

The Foreign Exchange @ The New Parish

My second visit to New Parish was also my second sold out show, which says as much about the venue as the artist on stage. Though New Parish remains relatively unknown, as would be expected for a place not even two years into its existence, it nevertheless maintains a devoted cadre of audiophiles. An eclectic swath of Oaklanders came out on Tuesday night, and none was not disappointed with the show Phonte, Nikolay, and co. delivered.

The Foreign Exchange’s sultry grooves combine the best elements of hip hop and r&b, infused with a bit of folk melancholy and digital percussion, to create a broad palate of heartfelt music. In Oakland on tour promoting the release of “Authenticity,” Foreign Exchange met my musical expectations. Singing is by far my primary focus with all music, so my eyes and ears were glued to Phonte, group MC, for most of the two hour show. Formerly a rapper, Phonte was not deceiving himself when he decided to make the transition to r&b crooner.

I would not say Phonte has the most impressive range or the purest voice, but I certainly do not want to undersell his ability in the least. His delivery flows effortlessly and his voice always carries a swell of passion. I got the impression over the course of the show that he did not access his full vocal ability, and held back on the embellishments with which great r&b singers often take my breath away. It was not until the last 15 minutes that he let loose a bit more and hit several notes that warranted a raised eyebrow. Surprise is a great element of live performance. After an hour and a half of spectating, I usually have the whole thing figured out, but when a band changes gears near the finale and gives me something new, it can totally transform my impression of them. This was the case with FE at New Parish.

Up until that point, Phonte was a one man wrecking crew, with notable support from the extremely talented drummer obscured towards the back corner of the stage. The other six bandmembers – guitar, bass, two keyboards, and two backup singers – were unremarkable. Fortunately, Phonte alone offered more than enough charisma to carry the show, especially on old and new hits like “All or Nothing/Coming Home to You” and “Maybe She’ll Dream of Me.” At one point during the show, the MC got carried away with a diatribe on love, hypocrisy, and Twitter. “Titties and Jesus don’t go together,” he insisted to the much-amused crowd. Phonte also implored us to “tweet for love,” and took pictures of cheering audience members.

The last segment of the show, FE kicked it up a notch with their signature song “Take Off The Blues.” I am probably safe in assuming that I was not the only fan in the audience whose first introduction to the group was the offering of that track as the “free download of the week” on iTunes almost three years ago. And thank god for that; iTunes and  Jesus do go together, it seems. The backup singers sang a little louder and exhibited a bit more spunk as the show progressed. Sy Smith took center stage for a song, and Jeanne Jolly held an impressive note for what seemed like thirty seconds during her own moment in the spotlight. The band ended the show with “Daykeeper,” probably their second best-known track, and “Don’t Wait,” an uplifting offering and one of my favorites off the latest album.

“I don’t know about everybody else but I’ll be taking advantage of the dance floor,” I tweeted before the show. I may have failed to follow through on that assertion, but compared to the rest of the crowd I was dancing heartily. I still do not understand why the New Parish crowd is afraid to move their feet, but if the place keeps bringing acts like the Foreign Exchange I will keep brushing off that irritation.

Check out video of Phonte introducing the band below, and then go listen to some FE recordings!

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Two Tunes for Friday

Neither of these songs are new, nor new to me personally, but both came up on Pandora today and they are so beautiful I had to share. Two of the best female singers around. Without further ado, Jill Scott and Sade.

Frank Ocean: The Lonny Breaux Collection & Nostalgia/ultra

I’ve been procrastinating r.e. the blog for several weeks, but this particular post has been in the works for several months. I’m telling myself the delay was a function of prudence. I had to wisely let the opinion mature before I could unleash it into cyberspace. Forethought is my M.O. I had to be sure that what I was going to write about R&B newcomer Frank Ocean represented a full and fair assessment of his work. Having let his music marinate now for quite some time, I think I’m finally ready to embark on this journey. And what a fascinating journey.

If it is not his greatest pursuit, authenticity is at the very least Frank Ocean’s best attribute as an artist. But before I justify that claim, I will provide a bit of background on the mysterious man himself. Ocean was until this year a virtually unknown performer, loosely affiliated with an offbeat hip-hop collective named Odd Future. Beknownst to few, however, Ocean had a plethora of unreleased music to his credit, mostly on one massive LP entitled “The Lonny Breaux Collection.”

Upon first listen, the whopping 62 song collection plays as an upbeat Friday night soundtrack, a fitting precursor to an evening out on the town. The individual tracks operate well together, each with cleverly produced club beats. But while the songs feel similar, reminiscent of contemporaneous radio hits, a closer listen reveals numerous tunes with their own original flavor. My favorites include a few shorter interludes, such as “Acura Integurl” and “Broken Pieces.” The former lays bare Ocean’s pensive lyrics above a catchy piano riff, and the track’s plainness works well. As Ocean describes a car ride with a potential love interest, I can imagine the song would translate well to a music video, but at 1:57 in length it’s a bit brief. Broken Pieces provides a nice compliment; a well-produced beat and sharp vocal harmonies grab my attention, but again at 1:17 the track is quite a tease.

Ocean’s songs on the album can be separated into two distinct categories: the slower, more instrumental offerings like Acura, and the club-influenced jams a la Broken Pieces. Other noteworthy entries for the former genre include Can’t Be The Last Time, J.O.B., Lonny, and No Bonnie. While Can’t Be The Last Time and Lonny are lyrically just standard love songs, J.O.B. and No Bonnie achieve a veritable degree of poignancy. “I catch zzzs at work now, so they’re gonna fire me soon,” begins Ocean on J.O.B, bemoaning the fact that his checks come “from the bank and not your heart.” Now, if “my job was only to love you,” Ocean claims, “there wouldn’t be no recession.” In the cliched world of R&B lyrics, in which male singers struggle to define their love beyond the use of three letter words, Ocean’s simple extended metaphor is a breath of fresh air (pardon the cliché!). No Bonnie – as in Bonnie and Clyde – follows Ocean’s own adaptation of the Hollywood storyline, as he reluctantly leaves the woman that he loves, unwilling to “risk her life for mine.” What Ocean is escaping from we don’t know, but we’re drawn into the possibility of him fleeing “the Feds.” Ocean makes us believe in his passion for the girl who he won’t let be “Bonnie.”

For his uptempo selections, my favorites are Time Machine, Read the Stars, When I’m Done, Dying For Your Love, Follow, and Quickly (also covered by John Legend). Riding his catchy and likable tunes, Ocean adeptly blasts his way through each song with a thoughtful confidence. Ocean’s vocal prowess is as evident in the faster-paced jams, and since I am biased towards talented singers, this attribute propels him squarely to the top of my iTunes playlists.

Nostalgia/ultra, Ocean’s better known and more recently recorded EP, is almost an entirely different animal. While Lonny Breaux is mostly original production, Nostalgia relies heavily on samples (including a memorable sample of The Eagles’ Hotel California); where Lonny boasts a hefty quantity of tracks, Nostalgia offers a tad more in quality. It should be noted that Def Jam signed Ocean two months ago and repackaged Nostalgia with entirely new cover art – the album is now available for purchase at most major music outlets. Nostalgia also features Ocean’s best known track, Novacane.

Most of all, Ocean’s personality comes to the forefront in songs such as Novacane and We All Try, perhaps the two standouts on the album. The former now receives regular radio play on  106.1 KMEL, our local hip-hop station, as the first officially released single. Novacane’s lyrics affirm Ocean’s status as an insightful – albeit eccentric – participant in twenty-first century American music culture and society. The song begins with Ocean describing a metaphorical state of numbness or unfeeling, admitting that he “can’t feel nothin’…even when I’m fuckin’, Viagra poppin’.”

Novacane certainly doesn’t shy away from mentioning drug usage – “I took a seat on a ice cold lawn, she handed me a ice blue bong, whatever” – much less apologizing for it. In the end, we are left wondering if the song is more about an experience of getting high with this particular girl (who apparently has a “stripper booty and a rack like wow”), or just getting high in general. What we do know is that Frank’s girl contributed to that sensational high; in the refrain at the end of the chorus – “love me now, when I’m gone love me none” – I also hear it as “love me numb,” as if Frank were pleading for love that will help him feel as he did before.

“We All Try” grew on me steadily, upon the recommendation of one of my friends. Of all his songs, We All Try could be heard as Frank Ocean Social Philosophy 101, and his provocative lyrics cannot be ignored. In the song, Ocean divulges his views on just about everything: God – “I believe there’s heaven,” politics – “I believe in war,” abortion – it’s her right to choose “but baby don’t abort,” gay marriage – it should be “between love and love.” Above all, Ocean urges us to “believe in something,” “try,”try to believe,” in whatever that something may be, and implies that passion can uplift while apathy denigrates. A powerful sentiment that hits home in the maelstrom that is the 21st century world. I look forward to discovering more about Frank Ocean soon; he has already made an indelible impression.