Modern Studies: We Are There (Fire) ****
Eddie Vedder: Earthling (Seattle Surf/Republic) ***
Dean Owens: Sinner’s Shrine (Eel Pie Records/CRS) ****
Astrid Williamson: Into the Mountain (Incarnation Records) ***
There are many carefully balanced elements in the music of Modern Studies, all woven together with natural talent and intuition to create a cozy comfort blanket of sound. The seductive blend was there from the start, on their 2016 debut Swell to Great, but it has developed quite sensually on subsequent releases, with the four members coming together from their respective bases in Glasgow and Lancashire to create their sumptuous sound in cellist Pete Harvey’s Perthshire Pumpkinfield Studios.
Their fourth album, We Are There, builds on its successors, with co-vocalists and songwriters Emily Scott and Rob St John expressing gentle, introverted sentiments while still alive to their surroundings. Scott has a gorgeous voice that straddles folk and pop styles, like a next generation Barbara Dickson, and dovetails naturally with St John’s soft baritone.
Their intertwined vocals, in dreamy unison or harmony, are a key signature – add in tribal rhythms, lush strings and jazz piano chords and there is a strong kinship with the prog folk balm of Clannad on tracks such as the elemental Two Swimmers or the mellow exultation of And Do You Wanna.
Each song is a mini-odyssey in sound. Little string flourishes disturb the millpond smoothness of the suitably soothing Comfort Me. The rhythmic vocal and acid guitar of psych folk number Wild Ocean gives way to a tender string arrangement. Soaring strings give the luxurious croon of Open Face a sense of scale.
Mothlight stands out in its semi-stridency but its rockier rhythm is paired with ecstatic vocals. Likewise, Winter Springs sets hypnotic voices against a more splintered backdrop of choppy jazz rhythms, click-clacking percussion, singing saw and (relatively) dissonant strings. The cohesive effect is comforting yet invigorating.
Pearl Jam frontman eddie vedder delivers his first solo album in over a decade. Following the stylistic straitjacket of Ukulele Songs, Earthling is a more conventional roots rock offering with big name guest stars and mild middle-of-the-road singles to bolster its commercial heft.
The docile roots rock of Long Way drifts along, while Brother the Cloud takes it easy on the verses then revs up with some pleasing taut guitar work. Vedder flexes his vocal muscles on the 80s pomp-influenced Invincible, then rips through the headlong Good and Evil, the pugnacious punk Rose of Jericho and the nosebleed pace of Try, with Stevie Wonder trilling frantically on harmonica. Elton John features in typical pub singer mode on the rollicking Picture, Ringo Starr guests on the orchestral Mrs Mills and On My Way opens with sampled crooner vocals from Vedder’s late father Edward Severson Jr.
Country singer/songwriter Dean Owens has looked to his Leith roots for inspiration in the past but his latest album is a glorious transatlantic collaboration with border rockers Calexico – plus guest vocalists Grant-Lee Phillips and the brilliant Guatemalan singer Gaby Moreno. Sinner’s Shrine was recorded in Tucson, Arizona and is steeped in the traditions of the American Southwest with lashings of mournful mariachi brass, filmic strings and pedal steel throughout.
There is abundant desert romance in Tex Mex waltz The Hopeless Ghosts, yearning, restless love song New Mexico and Compañera, a slow dance with a loved one before Owens goes full Morricone for Here Comes Paul Newman and keeps on whistling through border lament The Barbed Wire’s Still Weeping.
Into the Mountain, the ninth studio album by Shetland songwriter Astrid Williamson, was inspired by a journal of the same title she kept while touring with mystical Australian duo Dead Can Dance, which might account for the stealthy prowl and gothic guitars of the opening track Coming Up For Air. Elsewhere, the rolling drums, windswept strings and Williamson’s incantatory vocals whip up an atmospheric folk pop storm.
O Jerusalem! City of Three Faiths (Avie) *****
Jerusalem has long been a hotbed of political, religious and racial conflict. In this thought-provoking exploration of its transient musical identity, the American early music group, Apollo’s Fire, and singers take us on a whistle stop “musical tour”, sacred and secular, of the old city’s Four Quarters: Jewish, Armenian, Muslim and Christian. From searing Sepharic chant and ballads, a soulful Armenian hymn and red-hot Turkish/Arabian Longha dance, to the sumptuous Catholicism of Monteverdi Vespers’ extracts (illuminating the perceptible Middle-Eastern inspirations in his settings), and concluding with exuberant “party numbers” ” that imagine joint feasting by the various communities, the story is as much one of rich singular identities as shared cultural expression. Jeanette Sorrell directs a heady mix of performances, ranging from soulfully supplicant to lusty abandon. The instrumental playing is gutsy and colourful, the singing movingly visceral. Who’d have though this would be such a hit? Ken Walton
Alex Merritt/Steve Fishwick Quintet: Mind-Ear-Ladder (Fresh Sound New Talent)****
This distinguished UK jazz conglomerate unites the twin horns of tenor saxophonist Alex Merritt and trumpeter Steve Fishwick with pianist John Turville, bassist Mick Coady and drummer Matt Fishwick. Its title may be a somewhat chin-stroking summation of the continuum between thinking and realizing music, but this update is energetically straight-ahead contemporary jazz that also nods to past masters. The eccentrically titled opener, UHDC (Upper Holloway Dental Clinic), for instance, is inspired by Billy Strayhorn’s UMMG (Upper Manhattan Medical Group) of six decades ago, while Turville particularly shines in Pablo-ish, dedicated to German pianist Pablo Held. Merritt and Fishwick exchange forceful solos in the likes of Hollow Man and over the insistent riffing of Number Nine, the shifting tempi of Dr Wu, What’s Wrong with You? also bop along purposefully, while Ma Ballade features gently drifting choral-sounding horns over hissing brushwork. Jim Gilchrist
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George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.