Every so often, you get to see a band which you've followed for quite a while just blossom. You see a live show which reaches a different plane from anything you've seen them do before. The album which seems both to summarize and transcend all their influences at once. If you're really stunningly lucky, you get hit with both these events within a day... as I have with FourPlay, their new album Now To The Future, and their show last night in Newtown.
I got that sense of better-than-I-ever-imagined the first time I heard the Cowboy Junkies album Pale Sun Crescent Moon, or Melissa Etheridge's Yes I Am, or Ringo and the Roundheads' Vertical Man... and now, FourPlay. The familiar has become dazzling again.
FourPlay String Quartet (not to be confused with the American jazz group Fourplay) first broke through in '98 with their thunderous version of Metallica's "Enter Sandman", a sort of Gothic gallop whose novelty overshadowed their tremendous interpretative skill. Even then they were doing originals, like the criminally overlooked "Corrosion", but they were mainly known for their vivid covers: the Simpsons theme, the Beastie Boys' "Sabotage" (which perfectly captured their whines with a violin), Depeche Mode's "The Sweetest Perfection", a passionate better-than-the-original take on Jeff Buckley's "Grace", "On The Road Again" in full hoedown style, a nightmarishly forceful Pop Will Eat Itself track called "Ich Bin Ein Auslander", and their eerie swirling version of the Doctor Who theme. (Which, of course, is why they were first pointed out to me and Kate.)
Their first two discs -- Catgut Ya Tongue and TheJoyOf -- are lovely collections of music. But the new one is a work of art. It's about two-thirds originals one-third covers, and both are a leap beyond anything they've done before... but it's the originals which are the biggest revelation.
The centerpiece of the album is the title track, "Now To The Future", which Peter Hollo described on-stage as an attempt to evoke a sense of optimism and hope for tomorrow, not just for where they're going as a band but for the entire world. And so help me, it does. It's rich, layered, sophisticated but accessible -- layers of melody and countermelody and tumbling rhythmic waves. It sounds more than anything like "what if Paul McCartney wrote classical music", far more than any of McCartney's actual classical work does. It's one of those crystalline not-a-note-out-of-place pieces which just rolls over you. The sort of evocative, emotional writing which, well, inspires me to write -- I only hope I can write prose which moves people as much as this music does.
Another stand-out is the insanely clever and vivid "Bollyrock", in which this string quartet evokes a tremendous range of Indian instruments -- a swordmandel drone, or recreating a tabla with pizzicato slides on the cello while drumming on one of the violas. This builds up and up into a full-on Bollywood number... then explodes into a symphonic rock arrangement, with the violin fed through a wah-wah for good measure. The only word for the full effect is orchestral -- an orchestra of four.
What's astonishing isn't just their versatility, but the conviction they bring to any style they touch on. When they do a rock song, like their scorching version of the Strokes' "Reptilia" or Lara Goodridge's Buffy-ready alt-rock original "Evolve or Decay", they aren't a string quartet covering a rock number, they are a goddamn rock band. Then they turn on a dime and come up with something like Peter Hollo's "Downtown Nudnik", which starts out as what can only be described as a klezmer tango, before making a hard right turn into pure vaudeville and then, poignantly, coming back down to earth. Each track is full of confidence, maturity, and ambition.
Besides the more sophisticated writing, the other great leap forward has been in their vocal tracks -- there's a breathtaking burst of four-part harmony in their cover of Mingus' "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat (Theme For Lester Young)", and Lara Goodridge's lead vocals are far richer than before. Where previous performances like "The Boy From Ipanema" and "My Baby Just Cares For Me" were pleasant enough, there's a rawer, more emotional edge to this album's "Cry Me A River", and her new original compositions like "The Hunter" are layered and evocative in a way which reminds me of the moody moments of my other local fave Stella One Eleven.
And every bit of it translates to their live show, which I saw last night with Andrew Shellshear. The opening acts they were paired with were, to say the least, unexpected -- a mime and a man playing a theremin. They might have been chosen because, like FourPlay, neither of them was quite straight-on in their genre either... the mime, Lolita Red, combined traditional mime with wordless voice effects, at one point constructing an entire party out of a techno beat, drinking glug-glug noises, bursts of laughter, and finally tripping out and dancing in slow-motion bullet-time. By the standards of mime, it was surprisingly hip and witty. OTOH, it's almost impossible to make a theremin hip... as Andrew said, the instrument is like a singing dog, it's not so much that it sings well as that you can make it sing at all. The player did himself no favors with a geek-paradise number which included the inevitable Doctor Who theme welded onto a medley of Star Trek themes (not just the original but Deep Space 9 and possibly TNG as well).
Once Fourplay finally took the stage, it took a few numbers for everything to gel for us -- for the first three, we were stuck behind the only two people in the room who wanted to get up and dance, and also stuck in front of a couple of loudmouthed arseholes who would not shut up about the dancers. But then, as if by magic, when the band hit "Cry Me A River", the dancers went off to drink and the loudmouths went off to carp elsewhere... and as far as we were concerned, the show just ignited.
Seeing them in action really brought home their skill as arrangers, on top of everything else -- the way the cello could serve as anything from a bass to percussion to rhythm guitar, or the violin and violas could effortlessly trade off melody fragments and rhythm lines. They redefine the character of what you think these instruments are capable of -- for someone who's used to seeing pop/rock use cellos in a George Martin melodic sense, or strings in general as a bit of frosting, it's a revelation. You realize just how versatile and muscular these instruments are.
Aside from a couple of multi-tracked vocals, they did everything live which they did on the record. They touched on everything from a pizzicato version of Robert Johnson's "Drunken Hearted Man Blues" to a more rhythmic new arrangement of their original "Lilli Pilli Drive", jokingly diverted into a few seconds of "Kashmir" mixed with "Goldfinger" during the encore, and finally built up to a shimmering "Grace", and "Enter Sandman" with added distortion and feedback to give it even more of that fingernails-down-the-hindbrain quality. As a concert, it was breathtaking. As a celebration of the new album, which they played almost in its entirety... well, somewhere around "Now To The Future", I just forgot to breathe.
Buy this album. No ifs, ands, or buts. It's rich and sophisticated and accessible and dazzling. Go right now to their website, check it out, and order it. Yes, this means you, gregmce. And you, thegameiam. Heck, you too, Rupert, if you've got any spare cash after the move. If you don't, well, you may end up with a Christmas / Hanukkah present regardless. This is the sort of album you get evangelical about.