If Modern Studies' winsome debut documented their genesis and first blush of pooled creativity, the Scottish chamber pop quartet's follow-up, Welcome Strangers, announces the full might of their communal power. When the band first appeared in 2016, they had grown organically around a specific set of songs written on an antique pedal harmonium by Glaswegian singer/songwriter Emily Scott. Working once more out of bassist Pete Harvey's studio/clubhouse, Pumpkinfield, the collective -- which also includes singer/guitarist Rob St. John and drummer Joe Smillie -- takes a far more ambitious tack on their sophomore set, embroidering their pastoral folk-pop with experimental jazz elements and wildly inventive string and brass arrangements. The ten tracks on Welcome Strangers are infused with the collaborative commotion of multiple imaginations running amok, yet somehow working in concert with each other. Whether summoning the influence of community on the propulsive orchestral opener "Get Back Down," or describing ancient dark powers on the intense "Horns and Trumpets," each song seems to rise to some thrilling crescendo or offer a surprising tonal shift. Take "Let Idle Hands," for example, whose nuanced front half is built around the tentative thump of low toms, piano, and strings before exploding midway through into a sudden exaltation of harmonies, sawed double bass, and thick brass. In addition to the band's own instrumental prowess, the inclusion of their assembled chamber orchestra -- referred to as the Pumpkinseeds -- looms large on nearly every track, gamely tackling arrangements by Scott and Harvey that challenge expectations. More often than not, Scott and St. John share lead vocals, regardless of which one wrote the song, further adding to Modern Studies' collective feel of creative unity. Somehow more sophisticated and savage, Welcome Strangers is quite a leap from the bucolic folk of their debut and quite a bit more exciting too.
AllMusic Review by Timothy Monger