Well, this is all very nice. Nice music for nice people. Quite interesting in its own way but overwhelmingly… nice. Whether that’s a good thing, of course, is a matter of taste.
Modern Studies have put together Swell To Great around the central hub of a Victorian pedal harmonium. Marvellous old things and without a doubt the most interesting thing here. There’s a wistful, almost wise sound that seems to speak of experience and decades spent languishing and observing. Which it has I suppose. It certainly gives an emotive and mournful sound to proceedings. The band has been forthcoming with two descriptions of their music. Chamber pop certainly makes sense with the polite echo of eras past meeting contemporary songwriting. The other – Arts und Krafts Werk – is probably something we should gloss over.
In some ways, that latter terminology is the problem here. The songs are fine, it’s really well produced but there’s an excessive air of misfiring artfulness. It thinks it’s rather more clever than it actually is. There’s nothing to scare the horses and it has a slick beauty but it’s all rather bland. Any soul seems to have been excised with a view to making a soundtrack to drink green tea too whilst considering going to the architectural salvage yard for a spot of upcycling.
That said, there is a beguiling sonorous aspect to tracks like ‘Bold Fisherman’ where the vocals are shared. Some of the songwriting by Emily Scott does recall Low a little and, if one is prepared to let things wash over you, the gentle lapping around the ankles of tracks like ‘Today’s Regrets’ is a not altogether unpleasant experience. It’s just hard to get away from the nagging feeling that there is a far better album in the four-piece. The slightly more off-kilter ‘Ten White Horses’ is far superior to other tracks here. It shows a degree of quirkiness and great percussion that the rest of the album lacks.
This feels like a missed opportunity. They clearly know their way around bits of kit, both old and new. And the aesthetic is there. The beauty of the sound is just let down by songwriting that drifts along a little aimlessly. Being gentle in pop can be a great thing. Being genteel, not so much.