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David Dolby of Mardles

reviews Four Across by English Rebellion

In the absence of a blank crossword grid the easy way to solve Four Across is to stick the CD in player, press start, turn up the volume, and listen. For a glorious 58 minutes, and I wish it could have been longer, let the tunes and harmonies and counter-melodies fill your being, and share the joy that is obvious in this beautifully played and produced disc.

With this careful selection of traditional and modern tunes, of jigs, hornpipes, triple hornpipes, waltzes, mazurkas and a couple of songs, English Rebellion - Nick and Mary Barber, Mary Humphreys and Anahata -shows it is more that just a fine ceilidh band or a group of excellent session players. The whole, as they say, is greater than the sum of the parts.

Each player can take a tune, develop it, and sit back to let another take centre stage. Nick's French horn can be lead instrument, bass, and harmony, though not necessarily at the same time, and he's loving it; Mary B.'s fiddle playing is crisp, and is a perfect foil for the free-reed instruments; in Anahata'a hands, the melodeon seems to defy all the usual restrictions associated with it; and Mary H.'s piano forms the solid base upon which a most joyous sound is built. And then there are the other instruments: for example, Nick's compositions Harry Enfield's Waltz and String Quartet are just right for what eventually sounds like, well, a string quartet, and the banjo on Red Lion and Miss Gayton's Hornpipe feels as though it should always been there. Mary H.'s singing is as powerful and sensitive as ever, and Mary B. has made her recorded vocal debut in the chorus of Gypsy's Wedding, helping to produce a harmony reminiscent of the early Watersons. It's delicious.

This is not just a disc from which you can learn the tunes - though I'll know I'll try - or to play along with accomplished musicians, but one which rewards careful listening. Again and again. Each time I've played it I've heard something different, some new combination of instruments, some new sound. It could be the perfect vehicle to combat the onset of the long dark nights and the short dark days. Simply, it's a happy and life-affirming CD.

Finally, it may be worth noting that on this CD is the second version of Tricky Dicky and Liberation Polka to be issued in as many weeks, the first coming from their composer Colin Cater in his book/CD A Penny for the Ploughboys. Listen to both. And, not to be missed, on the back of the inset notes, is a picture of four happy-looking people - Four Across - sitting below a Suffolk Folk banner. Someone has an eye for good publicity.