City Lights, Vol. 3: Soweto

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Two stops on the Foreign Exchange's tour in support of Love in Flying Colors were venues in Johannesburg and Cape Town, South Africa. Almost precisely a year later, the duo's non-singing half followed up his previous solo release, 2009's City Lights, Vol. 2: Shibuya, with one naturally informed by the trip. Nicolay, who performs all of the instrumentation apart from an appearance from guitarist Chris Boerner, once again deftly incorporates traditional and contemporary sounds from a land otherwise distant to him. Radiant synthesizer melodies, jutting drums and probing basslines, and certain percussion accents are neatly woven through fusions of jazz-funk, house, broken beat, and downtempo electronic music. Like Shibuya, Soweto is less song-oriented than the Foreign Exchange albums. It likewise alternates between impeccably sequenced "home listening" tracks and nonaggressive dancefloor cuts. The closest peer is likely Louie Vega's similarly multicultural Elements of Life project, yet the material here is all original. This time, the voices are those of Phonte, who co-wrote seven of the ten songs, longtime associate Carmen Rodgers, and relative newcomer Tamisha Waden. There's also some narration, including brief Zulu lessons, from Johannesburg native Nomusa Nzima. Though all 48 minutes are unified, there are clear standouts. "The Brightest Star," ideally set up by the spangling low-key thumper "Sun Rings/Uprising," is the makers' most expansive formulation, a dynamic, glistening anthem possibly inspired, in part, by the vocoder wizardry of Herbie Hancock and the masterful cross-cultural arrangements of Richard Evans. "The Secret" is modern boogie -- midtempo post-disco -- with snaking high and low-end synthesizers framing a blissed-out Phonte vocal. It's also impossible to miss "Tomorrow," an intro with a hook large and ecstatic enough to be suited for an Olympics theme. One other major distinction between this volume and Shibuya is that this evokes a homecoming rather than a visitation.

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