Essay No. 8 in the series The Music of Black (Colin Vearncombe)
– Come Out Of The Rain
– Cold Chicken Skin
– Teenage Wall
– Same Mistake Twice
– In A Heartbeat
– Two Churches
– If You’re All Done Dying
– Signal Black Spot
– Her Coat And No Knickers
– Are You Having A Wonderful Life
– History Of Rock ‘n’ Roll Part 1
Between Two Churches was Colin Vearncombe’s eighth studio album. After releasing three studio albums, three ‘live’ albums and touring under his own name, Between Two Churches appeared in 2005. He commented, ‘The ambiguity of the name Black gives me valuable freedom as a singer-songwriter. This album is the one I’ve been working towards; the best one since the first one.’ Prior to the release of the album, Black issued the release of a four-track EP, Two Churches, including the title track, Cold Chicken Skin and Her Coat No Knickers from the album itself as well as a fourth song, Where The River Bends.
Reviews were positive: ‘Between Two Churches as a “guitar-driven project” with Vearncombe sounding rather like an early-‘70s Neil Diamond. Vearncombe hasn’t lost his rich voice or his ability to write meaningful tunes and he’s gained a lot of warm charm. The highlights are numerous, and the album is paced perfectly. Mature, smart and honest, Between Two Churches is a wonderful surprise.’ David Jeffries – All Music, 2005 Another saw the album as Black returning to a ‘fuller band sound of yore’ compared to the ‘down to basics of the albums released under his own name’, also noting ‘while artistic rather than commercial considerations are uppermost, the album also includes his most radio-friendly recordings of the past six years.’ Mike Davies – NetRhythms, 2005 A further review described the album as a ‘reminder of what a rounded, diligent craftsman Vearncombe is…switching moods effortlessly and boosting a decent number of hummable tunes, it gets really interesting on the handful of songs where he reaches deep into previously unchartered territory and comes across like a cross between Richard Thompson and Nick Cave.’ Neil McKay – CD Reviews: The Last Laugh. Belfast Telegraph, 2005
The year was marked by a huge tsunami relief effort following the Indian Ocean tragedy which took the lives of 178,000 people with 50,000 missing presumed dead. Hurricane Katrina hit Florida with 80% of the of New Orleans covered in floods and a major earthquake on the Pakistan and Indian border killed 86,000 and left 3.5 million people homeless.
In the US, President George W. Bush was inaugurated for a second term. Indeed, Bush and Blair figured prominently throughout the year. The former stated the US would pursue terrorists, following 9/11, was exacerbated by the rise of Al-Quaeda following the Iraq War. This would lead the EU to investigate claims the CIA had set up secret jails to interrogate terror suspects. The aftermath of the Iraq War witnessed a dramatic rise in Islamic terrorism, with roadside bombs killing ten US marines in Iraq as well as terror attacks in London, when three terrorist bombs killed seventy-six people on a bus and in the London Underground. Suicide bombers also struck three hotels in Arman, Jordan, killing sixty people.
Tony Blair would win a third term as British Prime Minister, yet his legacy was tarnished by what people perceived as an ‘illegal war’ in Iraq. Blair had come down severely on terror at the expense of infringing on British liberties. Consequently, he would later resign his premiership.
The period witnessed the ongoing effects of globalism, increasing the divide between rich and poor rather than alleviating it as originally hoped. People and goods were now able to move more easily from country to country with free-movement spiralling with the fall of Communism in eastern-bloc countries. However, multiculturalism, originally hailed as the triumph of neo-liberalism, brought new challenges such as the rise of terrorism originally in the wake of 9/11, with the internet helping to spread jihadist indoctrination with pro-terrorism websites increasing to 5,000 by 2005.
Music – 2005
During 2005 global music sales fell by 2% with a decline in CD sales due to the increase of digital music sales rising to $1.5 billion. The former vehicles for the dissemination of music were now regarded as outmoded by a younger generation more interested in the internet. This would only increase over time with file-sharing, impacting negatively on the music industry. Apple i-Tunes stalled in 2004 as social media grew together with music communities such as the recently founded My Space. As a result, distribution of royalties became a problem with less artist revenue with ‘live’ music as the sole surviving option for the sale of CD’s.
Piracy grew with online albums but, since the 1970s, had always been prevalent with cassette recording from vinyl sources. During the early 2000s, MP3s, introduced in the 1990s – and subsequently digital downloads – removed the need for solid-product, although CDs would continue in tandem coupled with a surprising growth in old-school vinyl as a way for the industry to recoup some of its losses.
The Arctic Monkeys, besides pioneering internet-spawned success with their debut single I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor, signed with indie label Domino for their debut album, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not. The band would subsequently sign with EMI for £1 million proving the major labels still held the reins at the top. Sandi Thom also began streaming music chalking-up millions of fans and Lily Allen started posting demos.
Pop music, per se, in 2005 was dominated by the likes of Mariah Carey, Pussycat Dolls, Black Eyed Peas, Snoop Dog, Will Smith, Alicia Keys, Maroon 5, Destiny’s Child, Jennifer Lopez and so on. Even with streaming, indie music remained particularly healthy with artists like Belle and Sebastian, System Of A Down, Eels, The White Stripes, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, The Fall, Teenage Fanclub, Beck, Robert Plant, Queens of the Stone Age, Graham Coxon, Deerhoof, Paul Weller, Kasbian and many others releasing albums during the year.
Indie music in 2005 was becoming more eclectic and diverse. A brief survey of the scene will overview music by Anthony and the Johnsons, Vashti Bunyan, Franz Ferdinand, Laura Veirs, Kate Bush, Franz Ferdinand, The Magic Numbers, LCD Soundsystem and The Kaiser Chiefs. Other bands and musicians active at the time, for example, were Andrew Bird, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Gorillaz, Low, Teenage Fanclub, Mercury Rev, Daft Punk, Devendra Banhart, Deathcab for Cutie and Richard Hawley.
Anthony and the Johnsons – I Am A Bird Now
Anthony (aka Anohni) and the Johnsons released the band’s second album I Am A Bird Now during 2005 to positive reviews. Featuring guest appearances by Lou Reed, Boy George, Devendra Banhart and others. Including themes of transformation, the album went on the receive The Mercury Prize. Opening with the gentle Hope There’s Someone, with its unusual counter tenor-like vocals, piano accompaniment in Ab major and memorable double-tracked vocals, the Middle8 instrumental is rhythmically-driven by a rising quaver triplet piano triads (Ab-A-Bm-C#m) and multi-tracked vocals. My Lady Story again includes piano accompaniment, featuring chamber ensemble which includes clarinets and strings accompanying the solo voice and harmony vocals. For Today I Am A Boy, also covering the theme of transformation, is set in the bright key of C major, while Man Is The Baby is shrouded in the more melancholic G minor. The piano accompaniment and cello obbligato develop into string quartet texture tenderly supporting the triplet-dominated rhythms of the vocals. The final Bird Gruhi includes a sparse setting again with piano accompaniment, strings and drums with brushes. The album is musically sparing with strong arrangements in service of the fine songwriting and vocal delivery.
Laura Veirs – Year Of Meteors
Laura Veirs is best known for her nu-folk style. Originally a member of a punk band, she was later to develop a folk style and her third album, Year Of Meteors, marks considerable musical development from her second release. Centred on voice and acoustic guitar, the opening Fire Snakes sets the tone with its descending Am-Am/G-D/F# chording and choruses of double-tracked unison vocals, enhanced by electronics. The second Galaxies is a louder electric guitar-driven song with basic, hard-edged Am-C-G-F distortion and high synthesizer A-B synthesizer oscillations. Secret Someone’s F major7 electric piano becomes rhythmically more assertive. Harmonically nothing much happens, the music developing largely through textural accumulation. Magnetised is memorable in terms of its chorus melody and Veirs’ child-like vocal line. The song is enhanced by simple piano and synthesizer. The high capo guitar of Spelunking is notable for Viers’ breathy Nick Drake-like voice.
Vashti Bunyan – Lookaftering
Beginning her career during the 1960s, Vashti Bunyan released her Joe Boyd-produced/Robert Kirby-arranged first album, Just Another Diamond Day in 1970. With poor sales, Bunyan released her second album, Lookaftering, in 2005. During the rise of nu-folk in the early 2000s, she was contacted by musicians Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom asking for advice. Produced by composer Max Richter and featuring Newsom, Lookaftering led Bunyan to assemble a band for a US and Canadian tour. Music from Another Diamond Day was subsequently released appearing in TV adverts and movie-soundtracks. Beginning with the nylon-string, A major Lately, string quartet and oboe obbligato enhance Bunyan’s fragile style. The 3/4 metre of Her Before is completed again by the nylon-string guitar and, here, glockenspiel. Wayward continues in much the same way, while hidden is texturally differentiated with piano. The strength of Lookaftering lies in the grain-of-the-voice.
Kate Bush – Ariel
Following her disappearance from public life to concentrate on a growing family, Kate Bush reappeared with her eighth ‘come-back’ album, Ariel. Originally released as a double-album, it appeared twelve years after The Red Shoes. Poly-stylistic, the album divided into two thematically distinct collections. The first entitled The Sea Of Honey, includes a song performed on Renaissance instruments called King Of The Mountain, an extended piece describing a summer’s day. The second disc, A Sky Of Honey, is an extended piece based on a day in summer. This multi-sectional piece includes birdsong closing with the title-song. The album sometimes references Bush’s earlier work with Peter Gabriel especially with the electric marimba introduction of King Of The Mountain, also deploying rock-associated instruments such as drums and reggae-like guitar. Bertie, written for her son, is more pianistic, but with the period-instruments’ gigue-like rhythms plunging a listener into the Renaissance period. Joanni, about Joan of Arc, has lengthy synthesizer soundscapes with a snare drum ostinato.
Franz Ferdinand – You Could Have It So Much Better
Scottish band Franz Ferdinand’s second album spawned four UK singles, with the album cover-art based on Russian avant-garde artist Alexander Rodchenko’s portrait of Lilya Brik. The song, You’re The Reason I’m Leaving, is about the rivalry between former-British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and his successor, Gordon Brown. The Fallen, beginning with a C-Bb-F power-riff and octave high guitar, is reminiscent of 1980s Postcard Records band, Josef K, updated for the millennium. This Boy’s extraverted Bm-G-Em verses and memorable chorus along with Evil And A Heathen’s F#-E riff have anthemic characteristics. The title-track is reminiscent of ‘80s band The Sound’s song Contact The Fact.
The Magic Numbers – The Magic Numbers
London-based band, The Magic Numbers, consist of two brother and sister pairs. The release 2005 eponymous album was followed by a tour supporting Travis and Snow Patrol. The opening Mornings Eleven’s opening Perfect 4ths serve as a prelude for a memorable song enhanced by harmony vocals reminiscent of an updated Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young with a central section in 6/8. The Mule has a Norman Greenbaum-like Spirit In The Sky-like opening in E minor, followed by Long Legs’ more direct delivery and country guitar owing something to Kurt Vile. Hymn For Her is more acoustic including glockenspiel and acoustic guitars.
LCD Soundsystem – LCD Soundsystem
Formed by James Murphy of DFA Records in 2002, seven-piece US band, LCD Soundsystem released their eponymous 2005 release receiving widespread critical acclaim including a Grammy Award nomination. Disbanding in 2011, the band reformed in 2015 releasing their fourth album, American Dream in 2017. LCD Soundsystem’s opener, Daft Punk Is Playing At My House’s strong riff (D-C-A) undergirds the entire song, together with bass guitar harmonics, while Too Much Love is a rhythmic dance in C# minor deploying high synthesizer glissandi. Tribulations is another dance-like song with synth bass octaves (B-F#-D-A). Movement is based on a low repeated E in rhythmic unison with a synth drum also appearing later with distorted, feedback guitars. The subsequent Never As Tired As When I’m Waking Up is the opposite, with soft chorus guitar arpeggios (A-A/G-D/F#-Dm/F) and double-tracked vocal, reminiscent of The Beatles’ While My Guitar Gently Weeps.
The Kaiser Chiefs – Employment
Leeds band, The Kaiser Chiefs, formed in 1997. Inspired by punk and new wave, they became best known for their single, Ruby. Their second album, Employment, sold over three million copies, winning the band three Brit Awards. The punk influence is heard immediately in Everyday I Love You Less, with its synth octaves and jagged guitar attacks with abrupt modulations from F#m to G. I Predict A Riot is possibly the best-known song on the album, with its opening guitar riff, memorable verse and descending chromatic chords as a prelude to the ‘La-la’ pre-chorus section and, ultimately, anthemic chorus. The extravert music is always memorable and slightly reminiscent of new wave band Magazine. Modern Way’s opening guitar arpeggios in the fingerprint minor mode, along with the chorus of This Is The Modern Way (C#-E-F#) are also stand-out songs. The final Team Mate, is a quasi-northern cabaret-like song with tremolo organ and rumba rhythm.
Irish Music during the 2000s
In Ireland, where Colin Vearncombe and his family moved in 2003, new music had grown up through the 1970s with Rory Gallagher and Taste, Skid Row, Thin Lizzy, Horslips, The Dubliners and Planxty. Artists such as Bono and Bob Geldof stepped beyond the pop and onto centre-stage of the geopolitical arena, with the global success of U2 and Live Aid in 1984. During the 1990s and early 2000s, The Frames and Damien Rice led the indie scene, with Irish music refreshed through the epic Riverdance along with music coming out of the pub scene. Traditionally, music has always been regarded a part of Irish life as well as an expression of a strong, indigenous culture. This aspect resonated with Vearncombe who, since the 1980s, had regarded his own music apart from mass popular culture and inhabiting an indie/home-grown ethos.
Camilla Griehsel has recently commented: ‘We met with Fergus O’Farrell and Maurice Seezer in the first few months of moving here and it wasn’t long after meeting we started making music together. It was the beginnings of what became Dogtail Soup. We were also part of Interference. Both bands had pretty much the same musicians at that time.’ Email from Camilla Griehsel – 3-07-23
It must be said Irish folk music, per se, had little effect on Colin Vearncombe’s style, now being part of a group of Anglo-American songwriters continuing and developing a tradition. Even so, he would have felt at home in Ireland with its connection to the strong Irish country music tradition a style explored by Vearncombe especially from The Accused onwards. As discussed in the essay on The Accused, writers and performers such as Boo Hewerdine, Eddie Reader, Calum MacColl and others had come into Vearncombe’s sphere of orbit since The Accused. It was these artists that continued the line – largely drawn from the American, British and Scottish folk and country traditions – begun by the likes of Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl, The Waterstones, Bert Jansch, Davey Graham, Shirley and Dolly Collins and so on, and subsequently renewed by US producer Joe Boyd fresh from working at Elektra Records. Seeing the potential for a modern British folk movement, Boyd founded the Witchseason label, managing and recording the likes of Fairport Convention – whose founder, Ashley Hutchins became a quintessential figure in traditional English folk music – The Incredible String Band, Dr. Strangely Strange, Nick Drake and, more importantly, John Martyn, who created the link from the 1970s to the Hewerdine/Reader/C. MacColl group
Seeing as Colin Vearncombe was now resident in Ireland it may be worth taking two examples of Irish music from the first decade of the new millennium. David Kitt and Fionn Regan stand out, both identified with the burgeoning nu-folk scene. Nu-folk combines elements of traditional folk and trad instruments – guitars, dulcimers etc – together with computer technology, to create something new and updated.
David Kitt has released eight albums altogether. Coming from a musical family, he studied at Trinity College, Dublin and his second album, The Big Romance, was released in 2001. The success of David Gray’s White Ladder fuelled Irish musicians and Kitt’s album picks up on the energy created. Cataloguing a growing romance, the opening Song From Hope Street, tinged by melancholia, includes Kitt’s trademark acoustic and oscillating semi-quaver/quaver looping underpinning the texture. You Know What I Want To Know has a beautifully memorable chorus with drooping harmonies (Am-G). Step Outside In The Morning Light is more delicate with electronic percussion and looped harmony. Mellotron creates an emotional backdrop. The faster Private Dance is built on a sequential loop of two chords, C-D, with distanced vocals, while Pale Blue Light includes clarinet and a long, descending vocal line (B-G#-F#-E-D#-C#).
Fionn Regan’s The End Of History, released during 2006 on Simon Raymonde’s fashionable Bella Union label, was lauded by critics as a cross between Nick Drake and Bob Dylan, with the follow-up crossing exclusively into full-on Dylan territory. The End Of History begins with the evergreen Be Good And Be Gone with its capo acoustic accompaniment and Ab major harmony, introduces Regan’s Thom Yorke-like vocal delivery. A multi-verse strophic song, it is instantly memorable, short and to the point. Complete with ‘pocket percussion’, The Underwood Typewriter has a ragtime feel with a metric switch from 4/4 to 6/8 in the chorus and violin obbligato during the refrain. Hunter’s Map’s guitar climbing bass line and tremolo-like upper part introduces Regan’s approach to de-tuned acoustic. The harmony here is original: F#m11-D, with simple modulations during the chorus section and gestural vocal interjections. The album has finely differentiated guitar styles making for maximum contrast, with songs such as Hey Rabbit, and its striking shifting metres. The funereal The Cowshed, with its de-tuned tom-toms, is dark and slow.
Between Two Churches – the album
Between Two Churches was released on 7th November, 2005, and was the first Black album since 1993. In between came those issued under his own name. Besides the positive reviews, Comedy-producer, Robin Millar, commented, ‘I am deeply moved. This is a coming-of-age record with a difference.’ https://neroschwarz.com It capitalises and extends the more spontaneous approach Colin Vearncombe discovered on the previous Smoke Up Close, this time transforming it for full band.
The album includes the following personnel:
Colin Vearncombe – vocals, guitar and harmonica; Calum MacColl – guitar, backing vocals and ‘flat thing’; Barry Van Zyl – drums and percussion; Liam Bradley – drums and percussion; Concord Nkabinde – bass guitar and backing vocals; Simon Edwards – bass guitar and marimbula; James Hallawell – Hammond organ and piano.
Between Two Churches was produced by Calum MacColl with Neal Snyman and Paul Madden engineering. Again, Phil Brown mixed the album and John Warwicker designed the cover, although Colin Vearncombe provided his own paintings incorporated into the design.
Guitarist/producer, Calum MacColl has recently spoken about the making of the record:
‘Around 2004 Colin Vearncombe called me up – we’d previously worked together – asking me to produce the next album. It was wonderful because I always loved working with Colin. I asked, “What have you got in mind?” He told me about his experience in South Africa where he and Camilla had been doing gigs at the Baseline and a couple of musicians he’d met and suggested we could go out to Johannesburg and record it which sounded exciting.’
‘I asked what kind of ideas he had and his reference for it wasn’t a musical one but more of a methodology. He wanted to make a kind of Neil Young/Crazy Horse album; something that was a bit more rocking. He said he’d read an interview about the first Crazy Horse album where Neil Young had said they’d got together in a studio and the process was spontaneous. I said that sounded fantastic but hadn’t met with the other musicians and engineer or even seen the studio. I’m a bit of a control-freak when it comes to production, but in the spirit of the Crazy Horse album I said, “Yes, let’s do it that way.” About three weeks before we flew to South Africa Colin phoned me and said, “I guess you’d like to hear some songs?” and I said something I’ve never said before or since, “In the spirit of the Crazy Horse idea I’d like it to be totally spontaneous and react on the spot”, to which he was slightly taken aback.’
‘So, we flew to Johannesburg and met some of the other musicians, Concord Nkabinde, Barry Van Zyl and the engineer, Neal Snyman. We were recording in SABC which was the old BBC in Johannesburg and set up in a big room, a little like Abbey Road Studio 2. Colin had his old Gibson acoustic and we said, “Colin, give us a song!” Some of the songs weren’t completely finished or he had doubts about them. Two Churches was one of those songs, but it would all unfold. We were just purely creative. One day, Neal set up the mics and I remember Colin and I had the most evil of hangovers. With Charlemagne, Colin started playing, I picked up a high-strung guitar and we had an arrangement in five minutes. The process was fantastic and the juxtaposition of the two very different musicians – Concord and Barry – with Colin and myself and the collision of the differing styles worked beautifully. Very, very creative.’
‘As these songs were unfolding to me as producer, I felt I was steering the ship but not in the traditional sense of production were you have a vision. Colin also didn’t have a vision for it either. He just wanted to make an album in that way. I’m not sure Colin ever approached an album as a group of songs which went together. Rather, he had a bag of songs. As we started to record the songs in South Africa I got the impression that this might be a concept album, and once we recorded Two Churches I broached the idea to Colin that this was his midlife crisis. Between Two Churches suggests you were born in one church and you die in another and your life is a journey between the two. He was midway between the two. Tragically, we now know that he was a bit further along. However, that started to inform how we did things.’
‘We recorded seventeen songs in Johannesburg and London and some songs which didn’t make the album, especially the song Dear Robert about Robert Palmer. We came back to London with the rough mixes, where we put the final tracks on Two Churches where all four of us were banging filing-cabinets to get this huge sound in this small studio we were working in. But we could never get the mix we heard in our heads, so we flew Neal Snyman over to help. When we were in London we needed three or four more songs. We did the rest of the songs: Where The River Bends (not on the album), The History Of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Teenage Wall, All Done Dying and Grievous Angel. I remember it being done in four or five days, primarily because we set up very quickly.’
‘It was one of the most wonderful recording experiences of my life, especially the South African sessions. Neal Snyman is a fantastically gifted engineer and Concord’s backing vocals on Charlemagne are just genius. I do think it’s Colin’s finest album song-wise. It’s just got something.’ Interview with Calum MacColl, 22-05-2023
If Wonderful Life to Are We Having Fun Yet? marks the first period of Colin Vearncombe’s recorded output (this does not take into account juvenilia such as More Than The Sun when Vearncombe is essentially learning his trade), then the Accused to Smoke Up Close marks the second period of output. Between Two Churches initiates the third period, with the move to Ireland demarcating a creative watershed. This triggered a move further down the road of authenticity and Americana, coinciding with the settling in the wider world of the internet and postmodernism. The neo-psychedelic period of the 1990s had given way to an acceptance of infinite creative possibilities, particularly as nu-folk had spawned paradoxical professional amateurism.
It was within this zeitgeist that Between Two Churches found its place, with Vearncombe’s main aim to create something approaching a neo-Neil Young style, although, in the end, the results remain typically Black/Colin Vearncombe. Calum MacColl remembers, ‘I don’t think it was a particular Neil Young/Crazy Horse album that Colin referenced, more the apparent “turn up and do it” approach. Email from Calum MacColl, 27-07-23 Here, though, a listener encounters a rougher, more gritty approach – and, certainly, something even more American than before – borne out of the spontaneous approach initiated by Vearncombe, Calum MacColl, the band and production team. Strangely, the Black persona is assigned to it, when it takes a similar stance to the style heard throughout the second period albums, especially The Accused. However, any of the smoothness found on those earlier albums has here been discarded.
There are twelve songs:
1. Come Out Of The Rain
2. Cold Chicken Skin
4. Teenage Wall
5. Same Mistake Twice
6. In A Heartbeat
7. Two Churches
8. If You’re All Done Dying
9. Signal Black Spot
10. Her Coat And No Knickers
11. Are You Having A Wonderful Life?
12. History Of Rock ‘n’ Roll Part 1
A four-track EP, only available at concerts and released in May 2005, includes Two Churches, Cold Chicken Skin, Her Coat And No Knickers and Where The River Bends.
Harmony and Structure
Given the songs were conceived even more spontaneously than the approach taken on Smoke Up Close, the placing of the songs’ particular keys/modal-centres may also be spontaneous. However, the placement may be governed by the concept which will be discussed later. Certainly, Smoke Up Close appears to be a dry run for Between Two Churches, with a stripping-back of means to reveal the essence of the music.
In Between Two Churches all songs are played with guitars tuned down a semitone with appropriate capo positions. The de-tunings provide a deeper, rougher feel to the songs; an earthiness unavailable in standard tuning; even more American in feel which is precisely what Vearncombe was after. Calum MacColl: ‘I think I did use detunings. Colin had a habit of keeping his Gibson J45 tuned half a tone down, so songs tended to end up in non-rock ‘n’ roll keys.’ Detuning acoustic guitars also tend to make strings more pliable, as well as an aid to the voice and putting less strain on a guitar neck. Email from Calum MacColl, 31-07-23 (Note: for the sake of clarity, the discussion will use sounding keys [i.e. at concert pitch]).
If the background Tonic key/mode is thought of as D major – the key of the final History Of Rock ‘n’ Roll Pt. 1 – then there is a progressive bVI-I (Submediant to Tonic) descent from the opening Come In From The Rain’s Bb major to the final D major, together with a number of ‘passing’ key-modes. The structural functions along the harmonic journey are illustrated in a quasi-Schenkerian harmonic background. (BTC Ex. 1) Certainly, a descent from b6 (Bb major) to 1 (D major) is unusual to say the least, but D does make repeated appearances as D major/D minor and, even, Db major – as C# major – and can therefore be felt as a ‘resting place’ to which the album returns from time to time along its journey.
There are seven songs in major key-modes balanced by five songs in minor key-modes and there tends to be no overriding sense of melancholia as on early Vearncombe albums. Major keys frame the album as structurally important pillars (indicted in BTW Ex. 1 as upper-case Roman numerals and minims; minor keys as lower-case Roman numerals and crotchets). The first half of the album tends to the dominated by minor key-modes, with the second half populated by major key-modes. This creates a kind of balance illustrative of a movement from darkness to light; the dross of matter to spirit in the life to death journey undergirding the concept.
Perhaps more importantly is the linear motif of an ascending 4th. This is heard in several of the songs and will be discussed later. This 4th has the tendency to unify the album at an unconscious level.
Concept and Lyrics
The intriguing question concerns the possibility that Between Two Churches is a concept album. Concept albums are traditionally associated with progressive rock music, where bands would relate counter-cultural narratives, or homegrown meta-narratives, as protest and challenge to the prevailing establishment. Deriving its impetus from nineteenth century ‘programme’ music and, in particular, the tone-poems and operas of composers such as Felix Mendelssohn and Richard Wagner. Tone-poem aim to painting a picture by musical means. The song-cycle – another nineteenth century genre – juxtaposing related poetry, such as Robert Schumann’s Dichterliebe – also had an important effect on the ‘60s/’70s generation of underground musicians. These kinds of weighty genres went against commercial corporate-liberal pop with serious intent, coherence and narrative effect.
King Crimson’s In The Court Of The Crimson King and Emerson Lake and Palmer’s Tarkus stand at the apex of the style. Loosely connected stories were also important in prog concepts, such as The Pretty Things’ S.F. Sorrow, Camel’s The Snowgoose and Hawkwind’s In Search Of Space. Classical music might be also be transformed and updated by rock bands such as ELP’s/Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition or The Nice’s Ars Longa Vita Brevis. One or two albums also include deliberately obscure or hidden concepts, the prime examples being King Crimson’s and Starless And Bible Black. Indeed, bands operational at the time were regarded as the vanguard of the countercultural movement presenting manifestos of protest and change to the converts of hippiedom.
Between Two Churches removes the ‘concept’ paradigm from its original progressive rock home and positions it in the context of indie Anglo/US country rock. The concept should be apparent from the lyrics of Between Two Churches, which might be connected by subject, motif and harmony:
Diagram 1 (concept)
|Come Out Of The Rain||birth/movement from heaven to earth|
|Cold Chicken Skin||experience|
|Charlemagne||cold light of day/8th/9th Century Emperor who united Europe|
|Teenage Wall||teenage life/leaving the provisional life|
|Same Mistake Twice||experience of romantic deceit|
|In A Heartbeat||brief encounter|
|Two Churches||autobiographical/transformation/life to death journey|
|If You’re All Done Dying||after death dance|
|Signal Black Spot||defiance in the face of decline/hearing the siren call|
|Her Coat And No Knickers||nostalgia|
|Are You Having A Wonderful Life||autobiographical/note to someone at a previous life stage|
|History Of Rock ‘n’ Roll Pt. 1||a note to a female persona/Not the hoped-for reality of stardom|
It is possible to sense a journey – though one slightly obscure and oblique – from the lyrics which also accounts for the positioning of songs in the structure: birth, through early life, experience and change, towards nostalgia, reminiscence and, finally, death. The final two songs, Are You Having A Wonderful Life? And History Of Rock ‘n’ Roll Pt. 1 reference earlier releases – Wonderful Life and History Of Rock ‘n’ Roll – as if to survey the past from an imagined future or, even, from a place removed from life itself.
Interestingly, the harmonic journey also reflects the life to death journey concept, in particular the bright Bb major (bVI) of the opening Come Out Of The Rain to the final resolution/resting place of History Of Rock ‘n’ Roll Pt. 1’s D major (I) with other, related key-modes – here, symbolising various (mainly autobiographical) experiences – along the journey. It is also reinforced by the ascending linear 4th which some traditions regard as a symbol of wholeness.
Texture and instrumentation
Textures are in a rock band style, with a huge nod towards the US West Coast: acoustic guitars, electric guitars/slide guitar, bass, drums and piano and organ, also employed by bands such as Crazy Horse, The Eagles, Little Feat and the UK’s Dire Straits. Sometimes reduced textures are deployed which eases tension created by the more direct country-rock drive:
Diagram 2 (texture)
|Come Out Of The Rain||full band texture; US country-rock|
|Cold Chicken Skin||semi-reduced texture; hand-claps; slide guitar; US country-rock|
|Charlemagne||folk-like texture; two-acoustics; ‘flat thing’ (dulcimer-like instrument); resonant low percussion on first beats of bar from verse two onwards|
|Teenage Wall||full electric guitars with slide; piano; US country-rock|
|Same Mistake Twice||US country-rock; electric guitars; rhythm section; piano and organ|
|In A Heartbeat||Tom Waits-like ballad; acoustics; electric guitar; light rhythm section; long, low, distanced sustain in electric guitar|
|Two Churches||reduced texture alternating with full texture: electric guitars (new wave-like), bass, drums with brushes; huge full and eruption at 2:16 and 3:48|
|If You’re All Done Dying||accumulative texture; soft unison electric guitars; organ and piano; slide guitar; acoustic guitar in coda; percussion|
|Signal Black Spot||full US band texture; acoustics; distorted electric guitars|
|Her Coat And No Knickers||soft country-waltz; acoustic guitar; electric guitar; soft rhythm section; piano and organ|
|Are You Having A Wonderful Life||acoustic rock; acoustic and electric guitars; rhythm section; piano and organ; harmonica|
|History Of Rock ‘n’ Roll Pt. 1||US-style light country rock; acoustic and electric guitars; rhythm section; piano|
Come Out Of The Rain
With the guitars tuned down a semitone, the chords used in this (using capo 2) are standard A-F#m7-D-E (I-vi-IV-V) – though sounding Bb-Gm7-Eb-F – with the bass creating inversions during the pre-chorus section leading into the chorus. Bb major symbolises strong optimism, though here combined with pentatonicism.
Come Out Of The Rain is typically Vearncombe: a fast, driving song (crotchet = 120), strophic in structure and with a Middle8 stretching the chordal inversions heard in the chorus into full bars: Eb|F|Eb/G|F/A|Bb|Bb/A|Gm|Ebmaj7|F|(Bb). Interestingly, the harmony reflects the ascending/descending shape heard in the melody of the verses. Verse one’s melody is memorable due to its pentatonic rising and falling lines (BTC Ex. 2) building into the chorus where the words, ‘baby come out of the rain’, are proclaimed in sharp relief (BTC Ex. 3) .
There are several further notable features in this well-integrated song, but the guitar introduction is particularly apt, with its memorable open-5ths country-rock motif in the acoustic guitars (BTC Ex. 4) . Here, not only are 5ths important, but also a rising 4th in the lower part of the guitar (see previous BTC Ex. 4) (Bb-Eb). This rising linear 4th is picked-up in subsequent songs becoming a feature of the album. later to re-appear in Cold Chicken Skin and, particularly, In A Heartbeat. In this way, the 4th serves to unify the structure and, even, serve as a symbol. It is extended during the Middle8 where the ‘twangy’ 5ths are now heard on electric guitars on every beat of the bar (BTC Ex. 5) together with a Rolling Stones-like Honky Tonk Women upwards and downwards bend (1:42). The bass is kept to an underpinning role and the low-tuned snare in the drums mesh well with the texture. Indeed, the rhythm section is highly effective throughout and, if anything, purposely laid-back and understated as one might expect from music identified with the West Coast. At 2:56 duration, Come Out Of The Rain is a particularly successful opener, inadvertently introducing elements which reappear throughout the album.
Cold Chicken Skin
A mid-tempo number (crotchet = 92) defined by its Little Feat-like country funk approach, the introduction sets the tone of the song (BTC Ex. 6) . Calum MacColl’s dry, slide-guitar adds a brittle touch alongside Vearncombe’s blues-like, gestural spoken vocal ((0:21ff.). Here, the guitar detuning has capo on the first fret.
Verse one (0:31) comprises a melody of linear Minor 3rds set in G minor Dorian (BTC Ex. 7) . The blues feel is not only reinforced by the many Minor 3rd intervals which saturate the song, but also by the slide, bass and low kick-drum marking every beat of the bar. The song catches fire (0:51) with more regular bass and drums, along with hand-claps and a surprising modulation to Em and C.
The pre-chorus leads segue into the tight harmony vocals of the anthemic chorus (1:02ff.)
reinforced by chains of blues-like, linear Minor 3rds. The semi-quaver-quaver-semi-quaver rhythm in the introductory acoustic guitar is deployed on the word ‘chicken’ rhythmically unifying the song (BTC Ex. 8) . The chorus picks-up on a feature from Come Out Of The Rain: linear 4ths – here, Bb to F – which later become important in In A Heartbeat. As such, the rising 4th is picked up from the introduction of Come Out Of The Rain.
The gestural blues vocal prefaces verse two and the strophic structure repeats as before with verse, pre-chorus and chorus. The choruses have back-of-the-mix, Tom Waits-like percussive sticks making the song even rougher. MacColl’s Middle8 slide solo is choc-full of blues-like licks -all Minor 3rd related – over a complete verse, pre-chorus and chorus while verse three proper reduces the texture to just vocal, acoustic and percussion before picking-up the full texture for the pre-chorus. The chorus is repeated twice with the slide foregrounded during the coda, essentially imitating the vocal. The song ends abruptly at 3:46.
The massive reduction in musical means on this album is nowhere better heard than on Cold Chicken Skin. Evoking an improvised cajun blues – owing something to Ry Cooder – as a fairly standard song structure (intro/verse/pre-chorus/chorus X2; repeat; Middle8 instrumental; verse/pre-chorus/chorus X2/coda), it manages to retain a completely fresh and spontaneous, US country-blues feel.
Using the character of Charlemagne metaphorically, this cryptic song deals with calming a capricious character. In a Jungian sense, it deals with coming to terms with the shadow. The fragile, yet masterful arrangement, is kept to a handful of acoustic instruments – two acoustic guitars, ‘flat thing’, and later percussion, as if to give the listener a chance to hear and digest the lyrical content.
In E minor – sometimes E minor Dorian – Calum MacColl’s dulcimer-like ‘flat thing’ takes the melodic hookline during the introduction (BTC Ex. 9) , with the acoustics picking the chords of E minor and D major. The verse melody is immediately memorable (BTC Ex. 10) , the chorus melody reminiscent of the chorus of Fleetwood Mac’s Dreams from Rumours (1977), a song which employs simple harmonic means for its effect. Vearncombe’s song has a harmonic shift to C major colouring the word ‘sunshine’ at the beginning of the chorus (BTC Ex. 11) .
Following a return of the introductory music (1:33ff.) one low percussion attack is heard at the outset of every other bar, bringing a Medieval-like flavour to the music. Concord Nkabinde’s higher voice also doubles the ‘flat thing’ treated with reverb. The chorus repeats bringing the music to a close on a single, sustained B natural on an acoustic guitar (3:45).
Follows with its Dire Straits/Lynyrd Skynyrd-like open fourths riff, this slide guitar-saturated song powers along at mid-tempo (crotchet = 120), complete with electric guitars, piano, bass and drums. The Middle8 wah-wah solo avoids the cliché-ridden style of Jimi Hendrix or Uriah Heep and the band accompaniment is kept firmly under control allowing Vearncombe’s voice to glide freely over the texture.
Same Mistake Twice
The song segues perfectly with one electric guitar (with the intonation slightly out) playing E minor-D-D7 all played bass to treble upon on and off-beats respectively (BTC Ex. 12) , with piano and percussion entering at the end and preparing the first verse.
Essentially much the same in feel as the introduction, it has simple chords underpinning Vearncombe’s voice. Here, the West Coast feel of the full band is felt (BTC Ex. 13) , the subject dealing with infidelity. The remainder of the verse and chorus – the latter bolted-on to the verse – includes C-Em-C-D/F# chordal accompaniment. The chorus is memorable mainly because Vearncombe delays the word ‘twice’ to the fourth beat of the bar as well as sustaining the D/F# chord over for an extra bar (0:36ff.).
Same Mistake Twice is the closest to Neil Young and Crazy Horse heard so far, even down to the Middle8’s ‘rough’ guitar solo and is about as far away from Vearncombe’s earlier music as things get.
In A Heartbeat
Undoubtedly influenced by the Tom Waits song, The Heart of Saturday Night, Heartbeat is possibly the finest song in Colin Vearncombe’s output since Wonderful Life. It is instantly memorable, leaving an indelible impression of intense longing on a listener. Once heard, never forgotten, with a romantic yearning and a stripped-back arrangement – two acoustics, electric guitar, bass and drums, Calum MacColl remembers its genesis:
‘I said we needed one more song, saying “You’re going to have to write one” and he replied, “I haven’t got anymore songs.” I said, “You’re going to have to write one.” He said, “Tonight?!” to which I responded, “Have a go!” And what came back was In A Heartbeat. He’d gone to a restaurant and wrote the song when he came back.’ Email from Calum MacColl, 22-05-23
Beginning with Vearncombe’s spoken introduction in a US drawl – ‘I’m goin’ – it launches into the slow, rising inner-part (an ascending linear 4th, C#-D#-E#-F#) in the acoustic guitar and at a slow walking pace. With Vearncombe’s detuned guitar capoed on the third fret (BTC Ex. 14) , preparing the expressive vocal (BTC Ex. 15) , the chorus is the central masterstroke with its descending harmony – F#-A#m7-D#m7-D#m7/C#-B-C#7 – (BTC Ex. 16) . MacColl’s second acoustic guitar and electric guitars shadow and decorate the texture which, following the second verse and extended chorus, develop into the Middle8 (2:05ff.) where the ascending chordal section represents the rising blood-surge of passionate encounter, symbolised as an ascending 4th in the form of parallel triads, with an initial slightly distorted pedal B anchoring the harmony under the rising guitar triads (BTC Ex. 17) . This is a harmonic development of the rising C# to F# of the introduction. The 4ths have, of course, been introduced from Come Out Of The Rain onwards, picked-up and transformed in Cold Chicken Skin, and here developed in In A Heartbeat. The solo electric guitar continues to climb stratospherically. The vocal comments on change (BTC Ex. 18) .
The Middle8 cranks-up the tension prior to the inevitable collapse back into the ‘sha-la’s’ (3:05) followed by a pause (3:07) and then the final ‘sha-la-la-la-la-la, don’t mean I love you’ brings to an and end what must be one of Colin Vearncombe’s finest songs.
This autobiographical song follows almost segue. It is up-tempo, in A minor and begins with drums (brushes on snare) and feedback guitars. It has a new wave muted chordal sequence made epic-Neil Young. Given that Young experimented with more contemporary styles, the comparison seems appropriate. Here the guitars comprise two elements: first, muted dyads in 3+3+2 rhythm (BTC Ex. 19a) ; secondly, chordal arpeggios in linear 4ths and 5ths (BTC Ex. 19b) . This is done to create as much tension as possible and prepare the vocal (BTC Ex. 20) over the introductory guitars. The understated vocal melody transforms the guitar introduction but retains the rising E-F semitone. Following the encounter of In A Heartbeat, Two Churches also focusses on change: ‘Shed my skin and be ready to go through changes.’
Verse two introduces more distant feedback and accumulating texture with the listener sensing the rising tension through the gradually ascending harmony – Am-C-D (open 5ths) – B. Reaching the centre of the album and clarifying the parallel growth in the life experience – following the album’s concept, along with the vision of St. Peter at ‘his neon door’ – the song explodes with the line ‘Between two churches’ (2:16ff.) and loud, distorted Am (5th)-G (4th) -A (6th) of the opening guitar fusing introduction to chorus. Could it be that, mysteriously, the song somehow taps-into Colin Vearncombe’s then unknown fate? After the explosion, the texture is reduced for verse three (3:48) along with a section of F-G-Am harmony obscured by texture.
It is as though In A Heartbeat and Two Churches, besides occupying centre-point in the structure, are opposites yet share the same conceptual concerns: one of inevitable change.
If You’re All Done Dying
This song continues with soft, syncopated C#’s on electric guitar, together with an epic chorus, ‘If you’re all done dying can we all get to dance?’. The textures include low C#’s in the piano and sustained organ chording. Again, accumulative textures and distorted slide guitar, together with triple harmony vocals, heighten the chorus hookline. Towards the end the textural reduction exposes one acoustic guitar, leaving at the very end one solo vocal line, ‘Listen, hell is freezing over.’ This song demonstrates simplification to the max.
Signal Black Spot
The song opens with a striking, syncopated electric guitar, later developed as a vocal hookline (BTC Ex. 21) . Verse one introduces a rising vocal line (BTC Ex. 22) with the guitars referring back to the of-on beat/bass to treble rhythm as Same Mistake Twice. Vearncombe’s guitar is capoed on fret one.
Again, the song has a strophic structure, with thickened texture for verse two, complete with tremolo Hammond organ and verse three’s reduction complemented by Neil Young-like clean guitars. The final anthemic wordless vocal is derived from the introductory guitar (BTC Ex. 23) but here doubled in part by solo distorted, sustained guitar eventually wheeling away on a course of its own.
A signal blackspot is a geographical area experiencing reduced phone, radio or TV signal; an area isolated and unavailable for reception. Vearncombe’s song implies his ‘best days may be gone’ yet ‘…I’d not exchange for none/Not with the fire that’s in me now’, being especially unavailable to the enticing song of the siren. The lyrical content is important, ‘God love you now you are/Strung out between the stars’, undergirding the life to death concept.
Her Coat And No Knickers
This triple-time country waltz points to the influence of both Neil Young and The Eagles. With an acoustic guitar introduction tuned, as with the other songs, a semi-tone lower, it uses standard D-Em-F#m7-G-D chords (sounding C#-D#m-Fm7-F#-C#).
The chorus is the stand-out section (BTC Ex. 24) demonstrating Gary Barlow’s possible debt to Vearncombe – or, perhaps, even, the other way around – particularly with moments such as the ‘delay’ found in the above between the words ‘care’ and ‘about’. The song is structured in typically Vearncombe strophic fashion, with a striking Middle8 and its rising D major-shape chords from open to fifth to seventh positions (although sounding in C# major, concert pitch) (BTC Ex. 25) . Again, this picks-up on the rising linear 4ths heard in Cold Chicken Skin and In A Heartbeat. The rising 4ths appear throughout the coda, with the addition of Hammond organ binding the texture together and providing grandeur.
Are You Having A Wonderful Life
This is a good-time country rocker referencing Wonderful Life with standard G-C-D-G chording though sounding in F# major (concert pitch). The pre-chorus and bolted-on chorus are the landmark with its pentatonic arching melody (BTC Ex. 26) .
History Of Rock ‘n’ Roll Part 1
This closes the album, here re-working History Of Rock ‘n’ Roll from Smoke Up Close and placing it fully realised in a band context. Following the concept, a ‘history’ is presented at the end for the purpose of retrospection. Calum MacColl’s tasteful guitar-fills join the gaps as well as creating obbligato lines, along with Liam Bradley’s David Bowie-like harmony vocals doubling Vearncombe’s at the octave. James Hallawell’s Middle8 piano solo is effective coming over as pure Billy Powell/Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Between Two Churches, because of its more direct approach, manages to capitalise and expand on the more authentic style Colin Vearncombe had taken since The Accused, stripping-back and finally dispensing with old-fashioned, new wave arrangements and production found on the first-period output and progressively growing into a fully-fledged US West Coast style. With Calum MacColl now in the production seat, a more guitaristic approach is heard taking on Neil Young-like dimensions to provide the rough edge required for Vearncombe’s lyrical subjects. Spontaneity and improvisation are key factors, not only with the approach to playing, but also with the writing as exemplified in songs such as In A Heartbeat and Charlemagne, the more full-throttle Same Mistake Twice and title track. The band perfectly support and enhance Vearncombe’s vocal delivery with well-crafted and tasteful arrangements.
All in all, Between two Churches stands as a beacon in Vearncombe’s output, mainly for its consistency but also by developing the more spontaneous approach heard on its precursor, Smoke Up Close. The life to death concept is also an integral new initiative providing the album with a meaningful trajectory. It is also original in terms of placing it within a context other than progressive rock.
Highlighting Vearncombe’s ongoing reaction, dissatisfaction with and exorcism of anything resembling his early industry-led albums, Between Two Churches demonstrates Colin Vearncombe jettisoning all in favour of direct songwriting craft, sonic authenticity and meaningful content. As such, it may be mooted that Vearncombe was progressively coming to himself.
Author: Andrew Keeling © 2023 Nero Schwarz Music Limited
|↑1||David Jeffries – All Music, 2005|
|↑2||Mike Davies – NetRhythms, 2005|
|↑3||Neil McKay – CD Reviews: The Last Laugh. Belfast Telegraph, 2005|
|↑4||Email from Camilla Griehsel – 3-07-23|
|↑6||Interview with Calum MacColl, 22-05-2023|
|↑7||Email from Calum MacColl, 27-07-23|
|↑8||Email from Calum MacColl, 31-07-23|
|↑9||Email from Calum MacColl, 22-05-23|