In this age of self isolation and social distancing we’ve come to rely more than ever on alternative, technology-enabled means of communication. However, it’s less of a new concept for Modern Studies who have taken advantage of it over recent years when creating their music. The four-piece is split geographically, with vocal duo Rob St John and Emily Scott being based in Lancashire and Scotland respectively, but third album The Weight Of The Sun sees them combine closer than ever to produce a cohesive album that belies their physical separation.
It shows how they continue to fall pleasingly between genres – sepia-tinted folk, understated chamber pop and organic, guitar-led songcraft. There’s also a sense that the twelve songs here are rooted in nature. Morning mist seems to gently settle on many tracks while others conjure the sensation of being present in the enclosed darkness of woodland, the welcoming expanse of lakes, the reassuring comfort of meadow land. Rob St John has previously produced visual artworks and solo albums with a focus on environment and The Weight Of The Sun shows how he’s able to help instil these concepts into more traditional musical forms.
Pastoral opener Photograph evokes rural landscapes while She has a similar earthy, rustic quality. In between are sandwiched two of the standout tracks of the album. Run For Cover is strident and focused while Heavy Water elegantly showcases the group’s key strength, namely the vocal interplay between St John and Scott, amid lighter, poppier arrangements. St John’s voice is rich, arch and oaky, suggesting a more melodic, mellow Mark Lanegan or a sturdier Stuart A Staples. Scott provides a balancing counterpoint with the clarity of hers which at times recalls Sandy Denny.
There’s a sustaining, literate mystique to many of the songs here. Signs Of Use has an enveloping, surreptitious drive to it, building to a muted finale and The Blue Of Distance has a beautiful restlessness and urgency to it. Jacqueline is more percussive, underwritten by an organ base. Songs like these provide warmth like an open fire in winter.
Those familiar with Modern Studies’ previous two albums won’t find much in the way of surprises here but overall, The Weight Of The Sun is the most developed and assured they’ve sounded to date, very much falling into the ‘rewards deep listening’ category. There’s a slow, quiet resonance to the final moments, especially on closing track Shape Of Light, that wrap everything up neatly, proving that positives can undoubtedly flow from separation.