Album review: Modern Studies – Welcome Strangers (Fire Records)

Pastoral tunes

You have to look away from the big cities to find new music in Britain today, it’s the only way for artists to escape from the pressure to be the next big thing and find the time to think outside the concrete box. That seems to be what Emily Scott and her cohorts in Modern Studies have done in Perthshire, Scotland with their second album Welcome Strangers. It follows a gentle and folksy debut with a more powerful and socially conscious set of songs that combines the full force of their considerable array of accompanists, an extended family of musicians that includes both brass and string sections. Modern Studies, named after the subject taught in Scottish schools which covers socio economics and politics on both a local and global scale, consists of principle songwriter Scott (vocals, organs, piano, double bass) and Rob St. John (vocals, guitars, synths, harmonium, tape loops) with Pete Harvey on cello, bass and piano and Joe Smillie on drums, mellotron and vocals. You can see from that list alone that there is considerable potential for tonal variety and when you add in the “sisters, wives, toddlers, freeform saxophonists and The Pumpkinseeds ensemble” it becomes apparent that this is no ordinary band, it’s a musical commune that has been skilfully corralled into making music together.

Their sound can be large scale and full on as in the opener Get Back Down where an army of largely acoustic instruments back up the harmonised voices of Scott and St. John alongside a punchy drum sound that gives this and other pieces a power that’s most unlike most folk music. But this is essentially folk, it has the warmth and humanity of the form alongside an emphasis on tunes rather than beats, the drums and bass are usually present but do not build grooves, rather they give the material a backbone that makes it more appealing to modern ears. The second track Disco is a calmer piece at least to begin with, like many of the ten songs it builds in instrumentation and turns sharp left to jolt your senses and focus attention. I particularly like the distant high pitched sounds on this that could be a synth but equally might be a mellotron.

Welcome Strangers has so much going on at times that it can get sonically dense, it’s not overly compressed or limited but when you have this many instruments of both electric and acoustic varieties coming through two channels something has to give. What makes it sound good are the textures and timbres of those instruments and the way that they interact or sometimes interfere with one another. There is some electric guitar on Young Sun that blurs the distinction between harmony and disruption but works well, providing a focal point in the wall of sound beyond the vocals. They are the strongpoint however, Scott in particular is beguiling and though you rarely hear her alone she is always the centre of attention. This is true whether she’s singing about contradictions of life on Horns of Plenty or “the growing grass” on The House.

Welcome Strangers lives up to its name with so much heart that it feels like going into a snug cottage full of friends. An album full of inventive arrangements and fertile with imagination, it’s an enriching musical journey that’s full of surprises.

Jason Kennedy

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