Modern Studies – Swell to Great
A treasure trove of songs from the folk-pop four-piece
This article is from 2016.
They're officially a four-piece, but there are five protagonists in chamber-pop cartographers Modern Studies. Emily Scott, Rob St John, Pete Harvey and Joe Smillie craft exquisite hymns and shanties on analogue synths, double bass, cello, drums, guitars and wine-glasses – but the character at the heart of this Glasgow-via-Yorkshire alliance is an old Victorian pedal harmonium, whose creaks and wheezes, puffs and drones, breathe history and life into these melancholy landscape psalms.
Swell to Great's elemental meditations on memory, nature and bodies of water (oceans, rivers, tears, ourselves) are calming and evocative, with a colour palette of bright moons, black streets, hidden depths and bottle greens, all shot through with unspoken blues – from the gorgeous, undulating folk-rock of 'Dive Bombing', through 'Black Street's nocturnal reverie, to longing songs awash in salt like 'Bold Fisherman', 'Ten White Horses' and 'Swimming'.
St John has long excavated nature and environment in his work – from debut album Weald through environmental art explorations like Water of Life and Concrete Antenna. His aesthetic and warm Lancastrian burr chimes beautifully with Scott's gorgeous voice and rich, poetic song-craft, as gently embellished by Smillie (also boss of Glasgow's magnificent Glad Cafe) and Harvey (The Leg, King Creosote). The latter's typically spacious, sublime arrangements are understated and mesmerising.
And the old harmonium speaks volumes, conjuring a sense of yearning and times past, as love letters to memories and the faraway slowly unfold. Lilting, orchestral opener 'Supercool' yearns across distance ('Oh the summer, long ago' ... 'Oh the water, so far out'), 'Father Is A Craftsman' is a stunning folk-pop ode to tradition, kinship and lineage, and 'Bottle Green' marvels at (and perhaps also mourns) 'The Ocean, deep as hell, flat as stone'. This is a treasure trove of songs that embrace, and transcend, place and time.
Out Mon 12 Sep, on Song, By Toad.