It was never going to be easy for the Glasgow-based chamber-pop band Modern Studies to follow their mesmerising debut album, 2016’s Swell To Great. However, with their new album, Welcome Strangers, the band has delivered a stunning set of beautifully-crafted songs, which reflect the considerable individual and collective talents, versatility and alchemy of this unique group of musicians. The delightfully creaking Victorian harmonium which was central to the sound on the first album takes a back seat here, as the song arrangements become ever more intricate, expansive and absorbing, featuring exhilarating flourishes of strings and brass and other subtle splashes of musical colour. Although remaining deliciously unconventional in structure, the new songs are perhaps more fully-formed than before, revealing more textures and layers with repeated plays.
Emily Scott’s elegant and expressive vocals are key to the band’s sound and are complemented perfectly by Rob St John’s rich baritone when the two voices wrap around each other in the harmonies and duets. The enigmatic lyrics and bold soundscapes are totally immersive and linger in the mind after a few listens. Like Scott and St John, the other two band members, Pete Harvey and Joe Smillie, play a range of instruments and contribute to Modern Studies’ signature sound, which is icily cool yet warmly affecting and uplifting.
The ten songs on the album are uniformly excellent. The first track, Get Back Down, sets the tone, opening with eerie organ, skittering percussion and guitar riffs and continuing with graceful multi-tracked vocals and sparkling brass and strings towards a closing chant/chorus carried along on a tide of sumptuous horns. The anthemic Mud And Flame is driven along by an insistent, jangling guitar riff and features a towering chorus and another chant-like ending, underpinned by waves of trippy mellotron. Exotic eastern percussion, piano and plucked strings usher in Let Idle Hands and give way to some feathery vocals from Emily Scott, euphoric choruses and flashes of gypsy violin, deeply resonant cello and booming sousaphone. Horns And Trumpets combines Scott’s hypnotic vocals with more jangling guitar and a quietly stirring orchestral arrangement, to great effect.
The dramatic tango rhythms of Fast As Flows play out over some punchy brass and subtle strings, while the impressionistic The House serves up a treat of slightly woozy mellotron and strings, fanfares of brass and quasi-operatic vocals towards the end. The album finishes on another high with Phosphene Dream, which sees St John and Scott alternating on lead vocals, over a shifting bossa nova beat, swooning strings and an orchestral arrangement which would grace many a movie score.
This is a triumphant second album from Modern Studies, which cements their reputation as one of the most innovative and intriguing bands around.