Welcome Strangers is the second work by feral pop outliers Modern Studies. Elegiac and haunted, life-giving and triumphant, this beguiling return digs deep into landscapes both real and imagined, internal and external, in a work that might perhaps best be described as “kosmiche choral” or, if we’re pushing it “arts- und-crafts-werk”. Or, put simply, glorious pop music.
It is an elemental and often spectral world of contrasting tones and hues that is found within Welcome Strangers, one whose lyrical vocabulary is of loss, light, air, sun, growth; of spires, seeds and phosphene dreams. Of amber-flowing rivers, rain on the roof and frost-bitten winters. Here is the Britain of visionaries such as Kate Bush, Broadcast or PJ Harvey, a nation of dark magic, conflict, celebration and confusion, all at the same time.
Witness the incandescent chamber-pop of ‘Get Back Down’, a song that shimmers like the sunlight on the flanks of a brown trout held fast in a upland-stream current. Underpinned by complex jazz rhythms, and string and brass flourishes, it manages to be both understated and epic as it explores a similar sonic terrain to Wild Beasts. Or there’s ‘Horns And Trumpets’, a haunting musical perambulation that burrows deep into Britain, a warm-hued hymn for future generations, and ‘Let Idle Hands’, which abandons restraint halfway through and, in a moment of musical epiphany, runs joyously to the horizon. Meanwhile on ‘Phosphene Dream’ the honeyed harmonies of Rob St. John and Emily Scott wrap themselves around each other like Lee Hazelwood and Nancy Sinatra had they holidayed in draughty Glasgow tenements. Or perhaps – as on ‘Disco’ – they come closer to Nick Cave and Kylie.
Recorded over the twelve months that comprised 2017, this is an occult interpretation of time and place – that’s occult in the true definition: hidden, secret, beyond the range of common knowledge. These songs were written on trains, islands, in cottages and city flats and while out wandering upland fells and moors. “It’s an ever changing thing – an organism,” explains Emily of Modern Studies’ songwriting process. “You’re quite vulnerable sharing what comes directly out of your brain with no edit function, so it has been a journey to convey the idea that when I come up with something that is a sweet and slow melody, it isn’t that I necessarily need it to be a folk ballad. These songs have a machine churning in their midst – of clamouring drums, staccato strings, all manner of other things. Importantly, there is space there for each of the band to experiment within.”
As an album title Welcome Strangers could also be perceived as a maxim for modern times; inclusive and open to all ideas, its creators curators of a musical museum of sound. Strangers welcome. “Family is the central theme,” says Emily. “The people you know, and the ones you don’t know or understand but to whom you’re still related: the human race. It’s about our sense of place or belonging as people, and our new audience as we expand our horizons.”
These songs are pertinent to the here and now, then. The title of ‘Mud And Flame’, for example, references a key soliloquy in Alan Clark’s 1974 televisual examination of history, place and identity, Penda’s Fen, and in doing so surely mirrors many discussions that are taking place today: “I am nothing pure. My race is mixed. My sex is mixed. I am woman and man. Light with darkness…I am mud and flame.” The song was finished on a Baltic island during a residency, at temperatures of -25, a move indicative of Modern Studies’ (literal) outsider status as a group keen to operate way beyond any mainstream concerns. This is music that is striving for immortality.
Formed in Scotland in 2015 as a quartet with a collective colourful CV of musical achievements, they have swiftly staked their claim as one of Britain’s most innovative new bands. With Emily and drummer Joe Smillie based in Glasgow, Rob in remotest Lancashire and cellist/string arranger Pete Harvey in rural Perthshire, they are a band of both city and country, and that shows in an output where traditional songwriting meets souped-up technology. Picture a mixing desk covered in moss and lichen if it helps.
Centered around a Victorian pedal harmonium, Modern Studies’ acclaimed debut album Swell To Great (2016) offered lush folk, salt-sprayed sparse pop and mesmeric sea shanties that encircled and enchanted the listener like creeping sea fret drifting inland to a wooded vale. Recorded in Pete’s rural Perthshire studio, Pumpkinfield, it was hailed as an album of the year in MOJO, who described it as “songs that see the mystical beyond the material, abstracted folk ballads awash in memory” while The List praised “a gorgeous sound which lands somewhere between Belle & Sebastian at their most icily wistful, and Fairport Convention’s autumnal folk-rock.” It was long-listed for the Scottish Album Of The Year Award 2017.
Newly-signed to Fire Records (Jane Weaver, Pictish Trail, Bardo Pond, Noveller), Modern Studies do not rest on their laurels. A tour of large concert halls with King Creosote saw them evolve beyond their studio project inception, while SOUNDING, a three-night multi-media concert with Lomond Campbell and the Pumpkinseeds Chamber Orchestra at the 2017 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, was an opportunity for some bold experiments. Between them all four members also work in sound and music – teaching, composing, programming, producing, exhibiting.
Now they proudly present Welcome Strangers, an album of modernist pop weirdness for the 21st century, a bricolage where classicism meets experimentalism and repeated listening unearths new stories for this contemporary age. More elaborate and expansive than its predecessor, this is music as cartography, Modern Studies mapping their own multi-dimensional internal world.
Recording once again took place in Pete’s studio, with the scattered band members convening to live communally for the duration. While piecing it together they compiled a playlist that included the likes of Soft Machine, The Staple Singers and German pastoral kosmiche, while artists that consistently meet with tour van approval might include Yamasuki, Van Dyke Parks, Talking Heads, Philip Glass, Matthew E White, Basil Kirchin, and Nanci Griffith.
A grant from Creative Scotland also allowed Modern Studies to hire an array of session players and a beautiful village hall in Perthshire in which to record. Contributors include sisters, wives, toddlers, freeform saxophonists and The Pumpkinseeds, a swashbuckling ensemble featuring violins, violas, cellos, trombones and vocals, brought together to play Pete and Emily’s collaborative arrangements. Truly, a family affair.
“They’re amazing – great friends, great players,” says Pete, of The Pumpkinseeds. “Folk I’ve met and played with over the years who are passionate, eclectic, gifted, and who revel in giving so much of themselves in making the music of others. Each member of the orchestra has a place, each has a unique part – they weave about each other as soloists, uniting in changing combinations. There is no multi-track layering up to thicken the sound. When we listen to the orchestra we see their lovely faces.”
As well as further fleshing out the sound with analogue synths, tube organs, drum machines and mellotrons, some inventive techniques were deployed – a decayed tape loop of Emily’s vocals used to create the stuttering rhythm in Mud and Flame for example, or prepared guitars recurring as percussion and drones – though never at the expense of the song. “In making this record we had to think clearly about what a strange sound might conjure up,” says Rob. “We wanted to be respectful of the orchestral arrangements, while adding elements of chance and weirdness.”
The experiment has paid dividends and Modern Studies have made an album that will surely echo down the ages. Welcome Strangers. Welcome all.
Modern Studies are:
Emily Scott (vocals, organs, piano, double bass)
Rob St. John (vocals, guitar, synths, harmonium, tape loops)
Pete Harvey (cello, bass, piano)
Joe Smillie (drums, mellotron, vocals)