Since their 2008 debut, 20:20 Manchester, 4Square have been refining their prodigious collective talent as writers and performers of the very finest contemporary folk songs and tune sets. With three albums behind them and an ever-widening reputation for their live performances; the former music students spent last year in a whirlwind of festival appearances, new writing and recording sessions. Their fourth album, Fuel, is due for release this month and bears all the hallmarks of a band reaching a significant stage in their evolution.
Fuel is a work of many flavours. The combination of Jim Molyneux’s keyboards and Dan Day’s light percussion provide an irresistible dynamism with lively Jazz and Latin themes, along with a host of other influences. Meanwhile the airy mandolin of Michael Giverin and Nicola Lyons’ lively fiddle provide a more grounded, trad outlook. That combination proves its worth as soon as the album opens, with Ignition. The light and engaging piano/mandolin combination is widened as fiddle introduces Dan Day’s melody. Through a series of gentle peaks and troughs, Ignition provides a beautiful and inviting opening.
Each band member has brought worthy instrumental pieces to the album, but the strength of this foursome’s collaboration ensures that individual styles are relinquished in favour of the band’s combined voice. That collective sound is well worth celebrating, and the title track, Fuel, is a perfect example of everything that’s appealing about contemporary folk music in England, and how 4square produce their art. A soft air on the fiddle is lifted by an enlivening percussion and, little by little, the lively, soaring melody is transformed into something more dynamic by that same piano and mandolin combination. In Dosketchup it’s the union of mandolin and fiddle that provides the initial delights. In this captivating pair of tunes from Jim and Nicola, percussion takes a more modern approach as the string pairing dance their way toward a syncopated exploration of a stronger jazz/folk fusion. Nicola’s fiddle is a joy – at times a light dance, at others a vigorous pace-setter.
Fuel is named after the Manchester Cafe where the melody was written, and although the band formed in the City, they’re now spread across England; with Dan and Nicola in London, Michael in Chester and Jim in both Manchester and London. As a result the recording process, either by accident or by design, has an organic feel that’s testament to how well 4square’s home grown approach works. With no studios or sound engineers to hone the sound, the band recorded the album in a series of sessions at each other’s homes and have produced a sound that must surely be a clear reflection of their live shows.
4square’s songs are another important aspect of those performances, and the soft vocals provided by Jim, Dan and Nicola are the perfect vehicle for their poetic and engaging song writing. In The Digging Song, there’s a soft light vocal alongside Nicola’s waltzing fiddle, while Michael’s mandolin keeps a light beat. As the fiddle dances in and out of the verses, Jim delivers an absorbing story with a light twist, and a Brian Finnegan reel, in its tail. The track also provides the first taste of the harmonies that soon become another notable aspect of 4square’s arrangements. In the album’s only cover version, James Taylor’s Enough to be on Your Way keeps its West Coast sentiment but is also, sonically, still rooted in the UK. And it’s a wonderful showcase for those enchanting three part harmonies.
In Nicola’s song of The Great War, Brave, the subject matter can seem at odds, initially, with its lively pace. That pace, however, suits the ultimate theme of the song – a celebration of bravery. A reel from Jim closes the song with a reflection of the soldiers’ confidence
“Brave and so proud, they sing the songs aloud
When they’re marching over field and fen, never to come back again”
Even in the heartfelt Message From Cloud 9, the band take an upbeat approach to bereavement with an uplifting fiddle and Nicola’s light as air harmonies to help ensure the message is positive. If Only, on the other hand, provides a rare glimpse of introspection from Jim. Wistful, even sombre with it’s deep, rich piano opening. Plucked strings accompany a soft, poetic vocal. That contemplative melancholy hangs in the air throughout, but the sound expands beautifully with gentle percussion and the layers of harmony that work so well throughout the album.
Returning to the tune sets, in The Great Goose Chase you really get the feeling the band are spreading their collective wings. Jim Molyneaux’s delightful melody is introduced by the return of those dynamic piano chords. Quickly joined by a lively fiddle with sharp Scandinavian twists, the mandolin is happy to pick these up before the tune takes off into individual outings for all three until Jim’s piano tempers the pace and softens the tone, leading to a gentle close. Closing the album very much on a high note, Balls to Balls pairs a light and merry reel from Michael Giverin with Katriona Gilmore’s gorgeously spicy jig, Upper Badger’s Bottom.
Fuel is a thoroughly delightful album, and a perfect example of patient and careful growth resulting in a blossoming of creativity. The pace and vitality engage the senses, the vocal performances are captivating and those arrangements, with their wide range of influences, are delightfully detailed but never overdone. It’s a significant release for 4Square, don’t be surprised if you start to hear the name mentioned and the music played more frequently among the main-stream media outlets.
Review by: Neil McFadyen
4Square performing ‘Balls To Balls’ Live
Fuel is released 25th March via Transition Records
March Tour Dates
HANGER FARM ARTS, SOUTHAMPTON
DARTFORD FOLK CLUB
THE LAMB FOLK CLUB, EASTBOURNE
THE RAM FOLK CLUB, THAMES DITTON
DE COMPAGNIE, VEGHEL, NL
MENEER FRITS, EINDHOVEN, NL
THE TEMPERANCE HALL, IRELETH, CUMBRIA
Find out more here: www.4squaremusic.co.uk