Reviewed by Blair Greenberg, December 1st, 2015
Fourplay is not your regular string quartet.
With two violas instead of two violins, their sound is immediately different, but they also use electronics and vocals to concoct a big sound, at times more reminiscent of a rock band.
They formed in 1995 and initially played mostly covers of songs from a wide variety of sources such as Metallica, Depeche Mode, Leonard Cohen, Sufjan Stevens and the Dr Who Theme.
However, Fourplay’s latest album, This Machine, features 100% original material composed jointly by the group showing a range of influences, from Balkan gypsy to slinky blues. It has a very filmic quality and it’s no surprise to hear they have been collaborating with author Neil Gaiman, providing a soundtrack to his work which was performed live at Carnegie Hall earlier this year.
The group’s strengths are its versatility and eclecticism, morphing from one style to another even within the one piece. There is obviously a real union between the musicians from years of playing together and a surprisingly full sound using percussive techniques to create drum beats and pulsing bass lines, and it’s not just studio trickery – their live sound is just as full.
There are two songs with lead vocals sung by Lara Goodridge. The first, This Machine, is a glorious pop song with a driving pulse, which could easily sit at the upper end of the Top 40. The song gives the album its title and theme, echoed in the lyric “We know the price of everything and yet the worth of none”.
The second, Mississippi Sinkhole, is a gutsy blues which could have been sung by Bessie Smith, but Lara Goodridge gets down and dirty and rises to the occasion. Theme is a more conventional acoustic string quartet arrangement while Moon Over the Moldau is a klezmer-inspired tune which turns into gypsy swing jazz with a solo by Shenzo Gregorio, who has developed his own style of playing his instrument like a ukulele or oud with virtuosic ability.
It can be difficult to make an homogenous album with material that has such diversity, but Fourplay has managed to construct a suite of pieces that reflects their influences but still works as a satisfying journey.
Over their 20-year history, Fourplay has developed from a group exploiting the novelty of a string quartet playing rock songs to a mature group writing its own music but still not easily categorised.
Special mention must be made of the cover and design of this CD – a beautiful surrealist illustration by designer, Dave McKean. The album was recorded and co-produced by Tony Buchen.
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