Record review: Nicolay's City Lights Vol. 3: Soweto | Record Review | Indy Week

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Record review: Nicolay's City Lights Vol. 3: Soweto

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The City Lights series, by The Foreign Exchange producer Nicolay, transforms his travels into obliquely personal instrumentals. The albums are about a place's effect on him, not some cheap cherry-picking of ethnic sounds set to a beat. Nicolay's background is rooted in a complex cultural give-and-take, so these are transmissions from someone who grew up in the Netherlands but loves American funk, soul, house and hip-hop, living in North Carolina and making music about South Africa. Global house music is often tasteful, but rarely this mindful. 

On City Lights Vol. 3: Soweto, Nicolay tucks South African rhythms into his minimalist beats, alongside clips of Nomusa Nzima explaining the Zulu tongue. These are cosmopolitan house tracks that tease dance's currency of current cool—spare techno, soulful house, globby ambient. Nicolay also has love for interesting if aged elements of dance music's past. His tracks invoke goofy elevator music ("Tomorrow"), noodly smooth jazz ("There Is a Place For Us") and sleek new age ("The Chase"). He's great at capturing joy, too. On "Daydream," for instance, The Foreign Exchange's Phonte Coleman joins Carmen Rodgers and Tamisha Waden to hum alongside the melody, together layering the instrumental's catchiness.

During the captivating "Sun Rings/Uprising," a warm synthesizer bobs and weaves around percussive clicks and clacks. In the last two minutes, the dance track grows more ominous. The percussion gets demanding, the electronics gnarly. It suggests a march, as though Nicolay were attempting to capture the energy of 1976 in Soweto, then the location of an uprising against apartheid. Here, one open-eared producer's trip becomes something bigger—the history of the place itself, and its lessons. Nicolay makes it easy to imagine these techno throbs travelling through time, from 1976 Soweto to 2015 U.S.A., the location of a second civil rights movement. Nicolay, then, is a most sophisticated sonic tourist, able to link the foreign to the domestic, the past to the present with a singular style.

Label: The Foreign Exchange Music

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