Essay No. 7 in the series The Music of Black (Colin Vearncombe)
– Music in 2002
Smoke Up Close – the album
– Creative Process
– Album credits
– Individual Songs
– The Wishing
– Seeds And Stalks
– Dying For The Quarter
– If Not You, Then Who?
– The Bride
– Different Lies
– Having A Good Time
– History Of Rock and Roll
– Quinn’s Old Flame
– Child’s Play
– Summer Rain
– After Life
– The Hurting Kind, Trouble Forgot You, Thumbnail
– Murphy’s, Needle Time, Stormy Waters
– The Sunshine
– That Was Yesterday, Blonde Trouble
Colin Vearncombe’s Smoke Up Close is a completely solo acoustic double album written in three months and recorded in seven sessions. It was released in 2002. Vearncombe said at the time, ‘No overdubs, no edits. Because I said I would. I needed to stand in front of the world.’ https://colinvearncombe.com
The album emerged as the result of Vearncombe’s new-found interest in acoustic touring, together with the casting-off of his 1980s and early ‘90s persona. He made the case that rather than being an album by Black, it could only ever be a Colin Vearncombe solo album, gradually beginning to see it was possible to operate as both. Encouraged by the audience’s reaction to the acoustic tours, Vearncombe took the opportunity to write songs, perform and record them without the lavish arrangements adorning his earlier work.
The world remained in disbelief following the attack on the twin towers in Manhattan, New York. An event later referred to as 9/11. US President George Bush, in his State of the Union Address, referred to ‘rogue states’ such as Iraq, Iran and North Korea as ‘an axis of evil’ later calling for regime changes. As a result, international travel had taken a blow with a decisive impact on the global economy. US and Afghan troops launched Operation Anaconda against remaining al-Quaeda and Taliban fighters in Afghanistan, while North Korea was suspected of developing nuclear weapons.
The EU was revolutionised with the introduction of the new Euro currency, as well as admitting ten new member states to join formally in 2004. By 2002, over half of the UK population had internet access and digitised information exceeded traditional analogue means. The period was widely referred to as the ‘information age’. Apple released its second-generation iPod challenging traditional ‘hard copy’ forms of music storage, and Sanyo would introduce the first mobile phone to include a camera. Microsoft introduced Xbox Live and the professional social media company LinkedIn was founded. Microsoft founder, Bill Gates, continued to top the world’s rich list.
In the UK, Queen Elizabeth II celebrated her Golden Jubilee, although both her mother and sister died in the same year. Politicians in the UK lost their power to set minimum terms of life sentences for prisoners following a challenge on the trial of Anthony Anderson by The European Court of Human Rights. Labour’s Education Secretary, Estelle Morris resigned following the controversy over her handling of exam marking delays and the vetting of teachers and Transport Secretary, Stephen Byers, would also resign following several controversies.
The Sars epidemic started in China while NASA’s Mars Odyssey spacecraft began mapping the surface of Mars with a view to possible future colonisation of the Red Planet. Lord of the Rings was released as a film, making it one of the biggest movies of the year and a milestone in the movie world.
Music in 2002
By 2002, bands, such as U2, previously promoted by major labels would no longer be nurtured due to the huge amounts of money required to launch an act into the pop charts. Bands such as Backstreet Boys, for example, had over a million dollars spent on them before they had even secured a record deal. However, new TV programmes such as Pop Stars and Pop Idol launched a number of new acts, notably Will Young. The year also saw underground rock sharing its former popularity with Emo (emotionally-driven-hardcore punk), a genre which had roots in the post-punk/new wave styles of the early 1980s. Rap continued to have mainstream success with Eminem’s The Eminem Show.
However, there was a healthy amount of album releases by Aerosmith (O Yeah!), Bon Jovi (Bounce), Tracy Chapman (Let It Rain), Def Leppard (X), Dixie Chicks (Home), Dream Theatre (Six Degrees Of Inner Turbulence), Foo Fighters (One By One), Korn (Untouchables), Oasis (Heathen Chemistry), The Rolling Stones (Forty Licks), Justin Timberlake (Justified), Shania Twain (Up!), Weezer (Maladroit), Interpol (Turn On The Bright Lights), Sigur Ros (Post-Rock), The Flaming Lips (Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots), Porcupine Tree (In Absentia) and Opeth (Deliverance), with the best-selling albums coming from Eminem, Avril Lavigne, Nelly, Ashanti and Pink.
Six albums from the year will be overviewed: Beck – Sea Change; Wilco – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot; Avril Lavigne – Let Go; Boris – Heavy Rocks; Coldplay – A Rush Of Blood To The Head; Queens of the Stone Age – Songs For The Deaf. One of the main themes which leaps out of this music is the reference to earlier musical styles – particularly those from the first years of the 1970s. Bands from that period, such as Lynyrd Skynyrd – at heart always a tribute band recalling their own favourites, Cream and Free – would reform in 1987, with guitarist Gary Rossington admitting that the new line-up was a memorial to the band which operated from 1973-77.
Beck – Sea Change
Coming to prominence with his rapidly-evolving experimental alter-egos, vocalist/guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Beck Hansen, is known mainly for his lo-fi style mostly on indie labels. From Los Angeles, he was originally identified with the anti-folk movement and then with albums such as Mellow Gold, Odelay, Mutations and Midnite Vultures. Sea Change is a further transformation into postmodern folk-rock marrying acoustic guitars and lush string arrangements juxtaposed with electronics.
Beginning with the slow E-F#m-A strummed acoustic guitar chords of Golden Age – complete with country-rock electric guitar bends – plus slide guitar alongside octave synthesized bells and delay, it is set in an early 1970s production. The entire album narrates a relationship breakdown by musical-metaphorical means. Paper Tiger, again with references to the early ‘70s especially in the rhythm section, has a string arrangement reminiscent of Harry Robinson’s treatment of Nick Drake’s Riverman. The chorus harmony, E-C-A, has excessive emotional weight. Electric guitar obbligato together with Beck’s vocal drawl and counter-melody add equal gravitas. The final, ‘But there’s no road back to you’, underlines both the album’s desolation and journeying metaphor and Guess I’m Doing Fine’s harmony – E-A-G#m-G-A-G-F#m-E – continues the slow, funereal narrative. Lonesome Tears takes the album down to its lowest point, with its introductory Bb-A-C#, effective through the use of ‘core’ pitches linking chord to chord along with strings. Reminiscent of Sandy Denny’s Next Time Around from North Star Grassman And The Ravens (1971), in terms of the Harry Robinson-like string arrangement – along with its tritonic chordal progression marrying the strings with synthesized clarinets during the chorus – burns into a listener’s emotional core. The coda’s endlessly ascending string lines are carefully controlled, underpinned by fast ‘70s drum rolls filling the rhythmic gaps. There is a slight upturn in the subsequent Lost Cause, as Beck comes to terms with his doomed relationship. End Of The Day’s harmony is masterfully constructed. The chorus’s accompanimental chords – D-F-C-Em – arrive powerfully after the one-chord verse on G major7 and the line ‘love turning to hate’, heightening the album’s overall confessional style. Here, the artist’s emotional turmoil releases something of real eternal worth. The major/minor harmony of Round The Bend again recalls Nick Drake’s Riverman. The entire album is an emotive summary of Beck’s penchant for musical exploration, magical melodies and meaningful, searching harmony. The penultimate Little One references Kurt Cobain’s harmonic stylisms, while the closer, Side Of the Road, points up the journey metaphor of the album providing a bookend to the opening The Golden Age. Eight years later, Thurston Moore (ex-Sonic Youth) would recruit Beck for production and arrangement for his own acoustic Demolished Thoughts album. Sea Change epitomises a clear rekindling of acoustic/singer-songwriter-like material, which would be explored further by the likes of P.J. Harvey in White Chalk (2007).
Wilco – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
The fourth album from Wilco was not to be released by the band’s label at the time but streamed free of charge. Later, Nonesuch Records signed the band with the album released as a CD during 2002 to widespread critical acclaim, reaching No. 13 on the Billboard chart. Beginning with the Radiohead-like I Am Trying To Break Your Heart’s electronics and soft piano, Jeff Tweedy’s low-register vocals oscillate around a B major centre, further developed by piano, marimba and organ sustained textures. Kamera’s faster D major acoustic guitar, synthesiser and drums with brushes, evolve with the addition of electric guitar, marimba and Dmaj7 to D major harmony. Radio Cure has tremolo-like guitar, piano and bass guitar octaves with Tweedy’s voice paralleling Thom Yorke’s vocal style. The song also includes passages of imitative electric guitar. During the Middle8, an abrupt modulation to F# major signals a sudden textural development, while War On War’s rhythmic drive gives the album real immediacy. Jesus Etc. introduces strings supporting simple piano and, during the Middle8, pedal-steel guitar.
Avril Lavigne – Let Go
Comprising thirteen tracks of pop-punk teenage angst, Let Go was released on Arista Records and Lavigne quickly became the biggest-selling Canadian artist of the twenty-first century. Although not quite Emo in style, Lavigne’s music is pop-punk, as the opening Losing Grip illustrates. Featuring de-tuned guitars in Ab major, the verses have a clean timbre against the chorus distortion. The single, Complicated, utilises D major/F major harmony, together with memorable F-C repeated hooklines and rap-like percussion, making it one of the biggest-selling singles of the year. Sk8er Boi is high-speed pop-punk crossed with metal guitars. The A-G guitar instrumental hookline provides the song with a melodic handle, and the D-A-Bm-Bb power chords, with an F major chorus, provide the song with a clear harmonic rationale, connecting it to the similar scheme of Complicated. The slick arrangements and production, along with direct and memorable material ensured the album’s success.
Boris – Heavy Rocks
Three-piece Japanese band, Boris, have released over twenty albums on various labels since forming in 1992. Heavy Rocks is the first of three bearing the same name, the others were released in 2011 and 2022, respectively. Band personnel is: Takesh – vocals, bass and guitar; Wata – guitar and echo; Atsuo – drums, percussion and voice plus guest musicians. Heavy Rocks is an apt description of the music. Beginning with Heavy Friends, Black Sabbath is referenced, with a detuned riff based on Ab-D tritones. Korosu’s fast C power-chording continues with octave guitars and Dyna-Soar has trilling guitars and high vocals over feedback, over fast rhythmic textures with ‘Yeah!’ exclaimed as a vocal hookline. Audry begins with more guitar feedback giving way to a rhythmic onslaught, while Soft Edge is a guitar wah-wah piece based on C-Am harmony. The rapid guitar riffing of Rattlesnake gives way to a fast boogie. At this point in time, Boris represent a speed version of Black Sabbath, nowhere better heard in Koei and Kane (The Bell Tower Of A Sign). The final 1970 is a postmodern throwback to Black Sabbath’s Paranoid period.
Coldplay – A Rush Of Blood To The Head
Coldplay – Chris Martin, Jonny Buckland, Gray Berryman and Will Chapman, along with creative director Will Champion – released the follow-up to their successful debut, Parachutes, in 2002. Politik’s repeated rhythmic attacks illustrate Martin’s Jeff-Buckley influence. Alternating guitar repetitions with softer piano-accompanied verses and alternate C7-Fm harmony, along with a classical-like Middle8, the material at once has a sophisticated edge. This kind of attention to detail lies at the heart of the Coldplay oeuvre, heard in the memorable In My Place with its high guitar E-B-C#-B-C# instrumental hookline. Clocks is the best-known song from the album, again with an unforgettable piano arpeggio instrumental hookline outlining the Ebm-Bbm-Db-Fm harmonic underlay. The song is structured as a huge harmonic loop, but with a surprising Jeff Buckley-like Middle8. The title track which provides the clearest Buckley influence, with its introductory soft vocal and acoustic guitar, subsequently develops in epic fashion with a huge production.
Queens of the Stone Age – Songs For The Deaf
From California, Queens of the Stone Age was formed by vocalist/guitarist Josh Homme in 1996, releasing their third album during 2002. Featuring Dave Grohl from Foo Fighters on drums, Songs For The Deaf is a concept album relating a journey through the California desert, tuning into radio stations along the way. Beginning with You Think I Ain’t Worth A Dollar, But I Feel Like A Millionaire includes distant spoken words along with a C minor riff followed by Homme’s high vocal. First It Giveth is bass-led with a memorable harmony vocal chorus, while Song For The Deaf is a forceful C minor-based de-tuned Minor 3rd riff, where string bending is featured. It ends suddenly with a Tierce de Picardie offsetting the minor mode. A soft Middle8 with sudden loud repeated chords after silences comes as welcome contrast to what has previously been heard.
It is known that Colin Vearncombe’s prime musical favourites were Bob Dylan and Neil Young. Joni Mitchell may also be counted as another, particularly because she is referenced in the song Joni on Smoke Up Close. In deciding to record thirty solo songs, Vearncombe would be tapping into these mainly West Coast stylisms without losing sight of himself. The following discussion will briefly centre on the ‘big three’ (Dylan, Young and Mitchell) briefly overviewing the music of each.
Bob Dylan stands, possibly, at the cornerstone of the modern American songwriter tradition, recording early songs like Blowin’ In The Wind as early as 1963. These songs were anthems of the Civil Rights and anti-war movements, as well as inspiring other artists such as Joan Baez. Dylan has continued to develop as a songwriter since then by inspiring future generations of countercultural musicians, poets and artists.
Bob Dylan’s second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, includes Blown’ In The Wind with its anthemic anti-war subject, simple capo-guitar accompaniment and harmonica instrumental sections. With the voice firmly in the foreground, the song is one of the icons of 1960s passive resistance. Not only was Dylan adept at acoustic guitar accompanimental strumming, but his picking technique – as well as first inversion and Minor 7th chordal work – are central to songs such as Out From The North Country. Natural and authentic production techniques lie at the heart of the album, something applauded by more traditional singer-songwriters/activists who laid considerable weight on the ‘message’. Perhaps the primary focus is the ‘up-closeness’ of the production found in the work of the other folk artists under discussion. Audiences would have experienced these musicians in intimate settings such as folk clubs or coffee bars. Both settings were central to the early 1960s, especially since the dissemination of countercultural concerns on radio and television would only become widespread later as the decade wore on with the Vietnam war becoming the prime concern of the younger generation.
Dylan became a controversial figure following his appearance at 1965’s The Newport Folk Festival. Both frustrated and constrained by the protest and folk movements, he began to merge folk music with rock, through the inclusion of electric instruments. The controversy reached its peak at the festival, when Dylan’s new musical stance was heard first-hand. His band, including guitarist Mike Bloomfield and future Lynyrd Skynyrd producer Al Kooper on organ, was met with a hostile audience reaction firmly against the modernisation, with the main complaints citing dilution of the purity of the message and selling-out to ‘pop music’. The new approach is concretised on Bringing It All Back Home (1965) which includes the well-know Mr. Tambourine Man, later re-recorded by The Byrds. Half the album is electric and half acoustic, leading listeners to believe that Dylan had been compromised and regarding it as a fusion of folk and Chuck Berry rock n’roll stylisms.
Highway 61 Revisited, which namechecks the road leading from Dylan’s home Minnesota to New Orleans, the musical hotbed of the US, includes Like A Rolling Stone with its country-rock-like arrangement, a rising I-V chord progression and thick Hammond organ timbre. Tombstone Blues has a forceful snare drum driving the music, but it is the final Desolation Row with its basic E major chordal accompaniment and second obbligato acoustic guitar fills which takes the weight of the album. Having a duration of over eleven minutes, the song’s length alone would be a cue bands like The Beatles and, later, The Nice to question the brevity of the pop song and starting to compose more seriously while moving away from trivial subjects favoured by the popular music industry.
Dylan continued to develop musically during the late 1970s with a series of Christian releases. 1979’s Slow Train Coming, recorded with Muscle Shoals session players and members of Dire Straits, showcases an album of laid-back arrangements along with female backing vocals sometimes recalling traditional Gospel music. An example is Slow Train with its simple Am-Dm slow funk having a Gospel message and effective F-Dm chorus. Fans, initially wary of the new stance, would be gradually won back to the new stance realising that it was part and parcel of Dylan’s message oeuvre. He would not only be an influence on the likes of Neil Young, but also on British musicians such as Nick Drake and Sandy Denny who covered his songs on their early recordings. Even King Crimson lyricist Peter Sinfield and drummer, Michael Giles, would cite Dylan as an influence on their work.
Canadian/American singer-songwriter Neil Young has continued to evolve musically since moving to Los Angeles in the 1960s, joining country-rock band Buffalo Springfield together with Stephen Stills and Richie Furay. Joining West Coast supergroup, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, the band would release several critically acclaimed albums, including Déjà Vu, becoming central to the revolutionary West Coast counter-culture and beyond.
Initially influenced by Bob Dylan, Young was to meet Joni Mitchell while playing in Winnipeg folk clubs. Young’s first, eponymous album, released in 1969, was followed-up by Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere with his band Crazy Horse in the same year. The album includes such staple favourites as Cinnamon girl and Cowgirl In The Sand. However, it was his third album, After The Goldrush (1970), which showcased the simple acoustic style with which he became identified. Kicking-off with the immediately recognisable Tell Me Why, with its basic acoustic guitar accompaniment and Young’s own multi-tracked voices, the sleeve notes provide information that most of the songs were inspired by the Dean Stockwell-Herb Berman screenplay, After the Goldrush. The title track has Young’s high vocal accompanied by simple piano and equally straightforward chords in D major (I-IV-V-vi-bVII), with the sole instrumental section played by Bill Peterson on flugelhorn. The basic set-up of acoustic guitar, piano, bass and drums, with its memorable harmony vocals, continues in Only Love Can Break Your Heart, followed by the more aggressive Southern Man foregrounding Young’s brittle lead guitar. The song would eventually be answered by Ronnie Van Zant in Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Sweet Home Alabama. Till The Morning Comes continues the light accompanimental style, also heard in Cripple Creek Ferry with its almost child-like melody.
His follow-up album, Harvest, might be regarded as a continuation of After The Goldrush with its equally straightforward approach. This is nowhere better heard than on the first song, Out On The Weekend, using only simple piano and light accompaniment. Inspired by his relationship with actress Carrie Snodgress, A Man Needs A Maid is larger with an instrumental arrangement from The London Symphony Orchestra. The album’s title track would reach No. 1 in the US.
Like Bob Dylan, Neil Young has continued to develop musically with albums like Rust Never Sleeps, and on into more experimental musical approaches such as the ‘live’ album Weld, later releasing the about-turn album, Harvest Moon (1992), referencing the stylisms of the earlier Harvest. Young became interested in the grunge scene of the early ‘90s, recording the live-in-studio Mirror Ball with Pearl Jam. His original way of music-making lent itself effortlessly to punk and grunge which he successfully adapted to his own style. As with Bob Dylan’s work, at the heart of Neil Young’s style is an unpretentious and authentic way of doing things, a facet Colin Vearncombe is likely to have assimilated.
Canadian singer-songwriter, Joni Mitchell, signed with Reprise Records, released her second album, Clouds, in 1969 with encouragement from David Crosby. Her third album, Ladies of the Canyon, was released in 1970 including the single Woodstock later covered by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young on Déjà Vu. The environmental anthem, Big Yellow Taxi, also appears later becoming a best-selling single. The album eventually went gold.
But it was Blue (1971) – inspired by her relationships with Graham Nash and James Taylor – that is known as Mitchell’s greatest critical and commercial success. Regarded by many as the pinnacle of her early style, the polysemantic title refers to Mitchell’s idiomatic exploration of blues; the blue of the oceanic seascapes of the Grecian islands; the artist’s feelings at the time. The album’s uncomplicated accompanimental resources centre on dulcimer, acoustic guitar and piano. Beginning with the rhythmic All I Want, the song deals with her relationship with James Taylor, as well as recalling time spent on Crete and Formentera where many of the songs for the album were written. Essentially a questing song in C# major, it is performed on dulcimer with an E natural ostinato propelling the music forwards and includes an emotive Phrygian G-F# major shift. Mitchell’s agile vocals, complemented by controlled vibrato, makes the song an unforgettable listener experience. The lyrics – written first with music fitted afterwards – allow vocal phrasing to develop in an improvisatory way, sometimes resembling blues and jazz. My Old Man, about Graham Nash – whom Mitchell was to break up with in favour of James Taylor – has simple chordal piano accompaniment. Initially with diatonic I-IV-V (A-D-E) accompaniment giving way to a dramatic, abrupt modulation for the Middle8 – G#m-F#-C#-C#7-B-A-D-E-(A) – again recalls blues and jazz. Little Green, written shortly after Mitchell signed adoption papers for her daughter, is a study in fragility, not only lyrically, but in Mitchell’s memorable delivery complimenting the lone acoustic guitar accompaniment capoed on the second fret. In B major, the song places weight on B9 and the D#m7-C#m7 shift. The chorus introduces the first modal progression – E-D-(B) – providing the song with a sudden harmonic jolt.
The rhythmic drive, picked up from All I Want, continues with Carey. The title-song deals with Mitchell’s time spent on the Greek islands, evoked by open-space and oceanic imagery. Accompanied by piano, and with a B minor modal centre, it shifts to G and E and evocative Bm-F#/G-E/A harmony, underpinning the words ‘sail away’, together with quasi-modern jazz D/E-E chording. The song’s rhythmic freedom portrays aquatic imagery, in some ways referencing the burgeoning relationship between Mitchell and Taylor providing the space to be free. This Flight Tonight utilises an acoustic guitar tuned down to very low G# and River’s opening piano introduction semi-quotes the Christmas carol, Jingle Bells, apt for the Christmas theme and Mitchell’s longing to skate away on the frozen river.
Although part of the singer-songwriter scene of the 1960s and early-‘70s, Joni Mitchell was not content to stay that way. Court And Spark, from her second period of musical output, extends her harmonic interests, pushing the boat out from Blue and utilising the jazz-rock ensemble, Tom Scott’s LA Express, alongside such notable musicians as Larry Carlton, Graham Nash and David Crosby. Help Me and Free Man In Paris are fine examples of Mitchell’s extended harmonic palette. With a dramatic exorcism of introspection found on Blue in favour of a more optimistic outlook, songs like Raised On Robbery illustrate this with its funk keyboard, charged rhythm and extrovert production.
As though Mitchell sensed the timbral qualities of Court And Spark might date quickly, she rapidly moved on to produce late ‘70s album such as Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, experimenting in the Overture/Cotton Avenue with six multi-tracked acoustic guitars, multi-layered vocals and removing dateable musical technology. Dreamland, with just voices and percussion, along with the sixteen-minute Paprika Plains, is an improvised dreamscape well contrasted with the shorter, rhythmic Off Night Backstreet and Jericho both issued as singles. Featuring bassist Jaco Pastorius and other members of Weather Report, Pastorius’s bass harmonics and high ‘lead’ bass lines, provide the music with both foreground and background linear and harmonic interest by creating bitonal aggregates.
Smoke Up Close – the album
Colin Vearncombe management remembers:
‘This record came out of an ongoing conversation Colin and I had been having for years about creativity and the pros and cons of setting goals and deadlines, as opposed to waiting for inspiration to occur. Turning up at the page, ready to work, versus waiting for ideas to spontaneously happen. It didn’t help that both of Colin’s most successful songs, Sweetest Smile and Wonderful Life, were written pretty much in the time it takes to perform them (with multiple lyric edits and production additions, of course). The essence of both of those songs – lyrics, melody and structure – came to Colin spontaneously, so when that’s been your experience it’s not easy to embrace an alternative method. However, as an eventual outcome of the conversation, Colin committed to writing a fixed number of songs in a fixed time and recording them in a very simple, zero-overdub way. It was more a commitment to himself than it was to me. He wanted to see if he could do it and what the outcome would be if he did.
He worked with Martin Green to record everything, knowing that Martin could be trusted to keep things as pure and true to the original ideas as possible. Once the songs were “on tape” (no mixing required, of course) we sat and listened to them and pondered – over a few weeks – what to do with them. There were at least three albums worth of material. Every song could have been worked up in a band environment, arranged, produced, recorded and released and that whole process would have taken at least three years – probably more like five. We both thought, “No… let’s just put them out as they are and move on.” Irony was never far from our door. That double-album turned out to be probably the most popular non-compilation we ever released.
Colin never liked to dwell on his work. Once it was written he wanted to record it and get it out. Whenever he’d written ten new songs to a final draft stage he’d say, “Here’s an album’s worth, let’s record them and put them out,” and then he’d stop writing until they were out of the in-tray. He could never keep writing until he had a surplus of songs and then select the best to put on an album. He’d say; “What does ‘the best’ mean anyway? What is a good song?”
These were never-ending discussions. Of course, from a business perspective, a “good song” is one that generates its own publicity and sells itself (the definition of a hit), but from an artistic point of view, a good song has nothing to do with its commerciality and depends on the nature of the work. Does it connect with a listener on an immediate, emotional level? Does it paint the picture or tell the story the writer wants to convey – even if the picture is unclear and the song is ambiguous or confused? Isn’t life messy and unclear anyway? Are songs purely for transient entertainment or are they art and a powerful form of emotional expression? Ask Joni (Mitchell) what art is.
In any case, the songs on Smoke Up Close were good enough for us. What other criteria matters? Out they went into the abyss. I wasn’t present when they were recorded and often wish I could have been. Being there at the moment of creation is magical.’ E-mail from Colin Vearncombe management, 14-12-22
Whether intentional or not the outcome remains the same: Colin Vearncombe’s exploration of music ‘made to order’, as opposed to ‘inspired’ music, lends a different flavour to the material for Smoke Up Close, unleashing a frenzy of material resembling in-the-moment, quasi-improvisatory magma. Like Nick Drake’s Pink Moon, Vearncombe’s Smoke Up Close is an example of an artist slimming down musical materials to ground zero. It is a massive denuding of previous musical means to find the essence, besides a continuing search for authenticity by following the school of songwriting craft. As such, it stands at the other extreme of the mass popular music of the period. Craft was placed at the centre of the proceedings suiting Vearncombe’s need to return to more traditional ways of working along the lines of Jimmy Webb, early Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, besides close contemporaries like Boo Hewerdine.
Smoke Up Close is, therefore, Colin Vearncombe’s most extreme album marking the disintegration of his former creative persona down to almost nothing. Here, he was continuing along the path of creative exploration and true independence, both in musical and business terms. The album is pivotal: looking forwards and backwards and simultaneously at a moment when he could truly consolidate his recently found singer-songwriter self. Vearncombe’s time at the forefront of popular music had at least provided him with a presence, but now the quest to realise himself – and refining discoveries made along the way – was an important step, even more so than on The Accused and Water on Snow.
Smoke Up Close, with its thirty solo songs, capitalises on this recent and dramatic transformation. ‘Up close’ is precisely what the early work of Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell is: an intimate engagement with artist and music, rather than in a massive auditorium twice-removed by television or radio. It is as though Vearncombe follows the Robert Fripp-like ethos of artist operating as ‘small, mobile, intelligent unit’, engaging on a one-to-one with his audience. The album anticipated a move to Ireland with his family a year later (2003), a place where many singer-songwriters also work ‘live’ in a solo capacity.
Voice, guitar, piano and harmonica: Colin Vearncombe;
Produced by Colin Vearncombe and Martin Green;
All tracks by Colin Vearncombe except Come To Me (Vearncombe/William Topley) and Trouble Forgot You (Vearncombe/Graham Henderson);
Produced by Martin Green;
Mastered by Pete Brown;
Artwork: Colin Vearncombe ‘self-portrait’;
CD design: John Warwicker.
Martin Green says:
‘By the time Colin was recording this project his studio space was no longer available, as Tomato had moved from Lexington Street out to a new location in Clerkenwell. I took most of the equipment to my house in Chesham and continued doing media work from there. There were two adjacent upstairs rooms that were in use for this, for monitoring/mixing etc. and one for recording, but as it was usually just me there the recording room was fairly small. I did have all of Colin’s microphones and his most prized piece of kit: a 2-channel Massenburg mic amp, along with high-end A/D converter, which did help to make for a good signal path.
As it says in the liner notes, “No overdubs or edits were done” and I don’t recall that Colin did many takes per song. He was very well prepared. He would turn up around 10am, do a couple of songs, then we’d break for lunch in the garden, do some more and then he’d go back home. It was pretty domesticated and civilised.
I think Colin was fairly happy with the way it all turned out. The guitar he played for most of this was an old Gibson which did have what might be referred to as a characterful tone; definitely not a standard acoustic sound. I thought the “earthiness” of it really suited the whole concept and I think it was something Colin liked too. There was no drama: just one man and his guitar!’ E-mail from Martin Green, 04.01.23
The CD is divided into two discs, each including fifteen songs:
Diagram 1 (track listing)
Seeds and Stalks
Dying For The Quarter
It Doesn’t Matter Now
If Not You, Then Who?
Come To Me
Graves Of Rockers
River Ride Women
Having A Good Time
When I Was Him
She Loves My Life
History Of Rock and Roll
Quinn’s Old Flame
The Hurting Kind
Trouble Forgot You
That Was Yesterday
The subjects of the songs are wide and varied, with many touching on the imaginary. For example, there is a song centring on Joni Mitchell (Joni) and two more which include names in the titles (Quinn’s Old Flame and Murphy). Regarding the last two, did Vearncombe base them on real people? Vearncombe management adds: ‘I don’t know for sure, but I always assumed she (Murphy) was an imaginary character perhaps sprinkled with a few characteristics of someone Colin knew or had read about – Colin was a voracious reader. I think many of the songs on Smoke Up Close were written from a storyteller’s point of view. Seeing as he’d set himself the goal of writing and recording thirty songs in a relatively short time frame, he couldn’t pull solely on his own inner feelings or experiences. It was clear he’d have no choice but to create some characters and give them their own back-stories, allowing them to have their own voice.’ E-mail from Collin Vearncombe management
The overall character of each song may be briefly summarised in one or a few words:
Diagram 2 (character)
|Seeds and Stalks||risky living|
|Dying For The Quarter||adventurous|
|It Doesn’t Matter Now||choice|
|If Not You, Then Who?||questioning|
|The Bride||fantasy (anima)|
|Come To Me||longing|
|Graves Of Rockers||death through adventure|
|River Ride Women||longing|
|Different Lies||missed opportunities|
|Having A Good Time||hope|
|Radio Silence||not going back|
|When I Was Him||ephemeral experience|
|Joni||solace through an influential contemporary|
|She Loves My Life||fantasy (anima)|
|History Of Rock and Roll||ambition|
|Quinn’s Old Flame||wishing|
|Summer Rain||memory and experience|
|After Life||finding oneself|
|The Hurting Kind||hurt|
|Trouble Forgot You||hurt|
|Needle Time||inner security|
|Stormy Waters||painful questioning|
|The Sunshine||secure love|
|That Was Yesterday||the past|
|Blonde Trouble||romantic danger (danger)|
Each of the songs is a definite ‘type’, even down to the possible influences three, of whom (Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell), have been previously discussed, yet Vearncombe never loses sight of his own style. Providing a clue to influences, instrumental accompaniments are distributed to maximum effect:
Diagram 3 (accompaniment)
|The Wishing||picked 12-string guitar|
|Seeds and Stalks||acoustic guitar and harmonica|
|Dying For The Quarter||muted acoustic guitar becoming ‘open’|
|It Doesn’t Matter Now||picked acoustic guitar and harmonica|
|If Not You, Then Who?||picked acoustic guitar|
|The Bride||picked and strummed acoustic guitar|
|Come To Me||picked acoustic guitar/rhythmic ‘slapped’ acoustic|
|Graves Of Rockers||picked acoustic guitar|
|River Ride Women||strummed acoustic guitar and harmonica|
|Different Lies||strummed acoustic guitar|
|Having A Good Time||strummed 12-string guitar and harmonica|
|Radio Silence||strummed acoustic guitar and harmonica|
|When I Was Him||strummed acoustic guitar|
|Joni||rhythmic ‘slapped’ nylon-string guitar|
|She Loves My Life||picked nylon-string guitar|
|History Of Rock and Roll||strummed acoustic guitar and harmonica|
|Quinn’s Old Flame||rhythmic ‘slapped’ acoustic guitar|
|Child’s Play||semi-muted and strummed acoustic guitar|
|Summer Rain||strummed acoustic guitar and harmonica|
|After Life||picked and rhythmic ‘semi-slapped’ acoustic guitar|
|The Hurting Kind||rhythmic ‘semi-slapped’ acoustic guitar|
|Trouble Forgot You||semi-picked acoustic guitar|
|Thumbnail||semi-strummed acoustic guitar|
|Waitin’||muted (rock and roll-style) acoustic guitar and harmonica|
|Murphy||rhythmic ‘semi-slapped’/picked acoustic guitar|
|Needle Time||(country-style) acoustic guitar and harmonica|
|Stormy Waters||semi-muted/picked acoustic guitar|
|That Was Yesterday||twelve-string acoustic guitar|
|Blonde Trouble||nylon-string guitar|
As with previous Vearncombe albums, here each song has a central modal key:
Diagram 4 (key)
|The Wishing||C major|
|Seeds and Stalks||E major|
|Dying For The Quarter||Eb minor|
|It Doesn’t Matter Now||C major|
|If Not You, Then Who?||E minor|
|The Bride||F minor (capo 1)|
|Come To Me||D major|
|Graves Of Rockers||Eb (capo 1)|
|River Ride Women||G major|
|Different Lies||B major|
|Having A Good Time||E major|
|Radio Silence||C major|
|When I Was Him||B minor-C major (modulating)|
|She Loves My Life||G major|
|History Of Rock and Roll||D major|
|Quinn’s Old Flame||Eb major (de-tuned)|
|Child’s Play||Eb minor (de-tuned)|
|Summer Rain||G major|
|After Life||E major|
|The Hurting Kind||Bb major (capo 1)|
|Trouble Forgot You||F# major (de-tuned with capo)|
|Thumbnail||(F major capo 3)|
|Waitin’||G minor (de-tuned)|
|Needle Time||C major|
|Stormy Waters||D minor (drop-D turning)|
|The Sunshine||E major (piano)|
|That Was Yesterday||Ab major (capo 4 [12-string guitar])|
|Blonde Trouble||Eb minor (de-tuned nylon-string)|
Tempi will be discussed during the following discussion of individual songs.
A number of songs from Smoke Up Close will be discussed, providing a glimpse of Colin Vearncombe’s musical vision for the album. He had become adept at creating imaginary scenarios inhabited by fictional characters. The likelihood is that he gained vital knowledge of the method from the songwriting workshops he attended. While all songs are accompanied by acoustic guitar (either acoustic, 12-string or nylon-string) there is one accompanied by piano (The Sunshine). Harmonica is also used to provide an additional texture to various songs.
The Wishing begins and, at over five minutes, makes it a lengthy and powerful opener. A grand strophic structure with a tempo of crotchet = 88, it has a picked acoustic introduction. The chordal accompaniment consists of C-C9-C-Cmaj7 (SUC Ex. 1) , with the voice entering immediately after the introduction (SUC Ex. 2) . The verse harmony is kept to a basic I-IV-V-vi throughout to simply accompany the vocal, with the end of the first phrase including an American slant with its falling motif referencing The Eagles and recalling the same in the songs Desperado and One Of These Nights.
During the second half of the verse, the guitar is played in a semi-muted style providing rhythmic thrust to the chords F-E (0:31) before returning to the picking technique of the first section ((0:41ff.). The chorus (0:51ff.) includes a descending motion both in the linear and harmonic dimensions, with the first two bars and anacrusis resembling the chorus of the Simply Red song, Stars (1991) (SUC Ex. 3) .
The introduction reappears moving into verse two but now with rhythmic strumming as accompaniment. Dealing with a sailing/travel metaphor, it has muted rhythms providing interest in the guitar part which becomes aggressive as the protagonist laments wrong life choices. The contracted verse three is softer, allowing the chorus to re-emerge together with the more aggressive guitar part and the thrice-repeated hookline, ‘…the wishing’s not enough’. The song ends on an interrupted cadence (4:50) – G-Am9 – with soft acoustic picking, successfully framing the song.
Seeds And Stalks
The Dylanesque four-verse structure Seeds And Stalks follows. At crotchet = 92bpm, it is in E modal major again utilising basic accompanimental harmony (I-IV-V [E-A-B7]) and dealing with a wild-west preacher man. The rhythmically strummed acoustic, complete with cutting harmonica, introduces wild west scenario (SUC Ex. 4) . At the end of the second verse there is an abrupt shift to C major (SUC Ex. 5) with the memorable chorus following immediately (SUC Ex. 6) . The chorus utilises straightforward I-IV-V chording culled from the introduction to unify the song.
With the seeds and stalks metaphor used at the end of the chorus, verse two continues at much the same velocity to continue the story of the gambling preacher. The Middle8 has an accompanied harmonica solo, with the song ending on tremolo strummed guitar.
Dying For The Quarter
The title of the song is essentially a metaphor for a lesson prior to death. It also deals with freedom of choice such as, ‘An angel in my head that I can’t ignore’ which, from a Jungian viewpoint, is the anima, a man’s inner fate directing his life. However, it might also be an unconscious reference to the actress Winona Ryder, as the song’s female protagonist is called Wynona.
The tempo is crotchet = 96bpm, and the accompaniment utilises detuned guitar – all the strings are tuned down a tone with a capo on fret one. The modal key is Eb minor with the main opening riff based on a Minor 3rd played muted and semi-muted eight times (SUC Ex. 7) . The voice enters softly and mysteriously (SUC Ex. 8) with the second phrase resembling the first anticipating the pre-chorus. Here, the guitar accompaniment accentuates on-the-beat crotchet rhythms (SUC Ex. 9) . The climax of the chorus has Vearncombe’s high impassioned vocals, with guitar playing introductory material but in a more aggressive manner (SUC Ex. 10) .
The lines covering Wynona come at the end of the chorus, plus the line ‘Dying for the quarter’ over repeated Cb9-Db9 chording before falling back into the introductory chords. The strophic structure continues in verse two, where Wynona is transformed into ‘change the wine into water’ but restored in the third and final verse. ‘Dying for the quarter’ is repeated at the end, leaving the guitar to repeat the Ebm7-Gb major chords to the very end.
The album continues with the slow picked guitar and harmonica of It Doesn’t Matter Now, and its C-G-Am accompaniment. The chorus’ rhythmic slaps on guitar provide the song with momentum. All these elements provide the backdrop for Vearncombe’s poignant lyrics, particularly ‘Once the page is read it’s better thrown away.’
If Not You, Then Who?
A slow song (crotchet – 44bpm), in E modal minor, it deals with a secondary female protagonist saving ‘me’ from the wreckage.
The introduction is a slow, melancholic blues (SUC Ex. 11) utilising Em-Am-B7 with a rising shift to C major. Verse one begins the narrative (SUC Ex. 12) , with the vocals also blues-like as one might expect. A brief post-verse section (1:07ff.) asks ‘who, if not you?’ The section also introduces new harmonic elements (Am13) to ramp up the emotional impact (SUC Ex. 13) .
Verse two and post-verse continue the strophic structure, with the song similar in style to Tom Waits. Verse three has an even greater emotional range which is complemented by more aggressive guitar strumming.
This song continues with low-range vocals underpinned by descending Fm-C/E guitar harmony developed by rhythmic strumming and contrasted by the faster, D major-centred Come To Me written by Vearncombe and William Topley. Graves Of Rockers is again slow, exploring de-tuned guitar – to Eb major – with its theme of the suffering of the misunderstood. River Ride Women returns to Eagles/Neil Young musical territory with its outgoing G major centre and introductory harmonica gestures.
With a slow tempo (crotchet – 60bpm) and the unusual key of B major, the song is about growing experience. Another strophic structure, the chorus bears the main weight with its descending chords and emotive vocal delivery recalling Scott Walker (SUC Ex. 14) . Again, the harmony here is unusual, including a long-term modulation from B (0:52) to the remote D major (1:19), perhaps unconsciously symbolising the soul’s final resting place. The song’s grand narrative would have been especially suitable for a string arrangement, yet works equally well with voice and acoustic alone, something perhaps assimilated from Neil Young.
Having A Good Time
Beginning with 12-string strumming on E-Amaj7-A6, together with accompanying sustained harmonica, at crotchet – 84bpm, this soft song transforms the previous musical landscape with luminescent, silver light, apt for the opening lyric, ‘Restless in the pale moonlight.’ (SUC Ex. 15) . A sudden shift to Am7 (0:45), underpins the word, ‘scars’.
The song’s subject deals with the fading TV hero, connecting it to the previous Graves Of Rockers, particularly as Vearncombe sings of ‘headstones as far as the eye can see’ over a sudden modulation to C major, to ‘let the heartache begin.’
The song’s centre is again hushed (2:03) with semi-muted guitar until the line ‘having a good time’ and the recapitulated harmonica opening anticipates the final verse’s ‘I need a rainbow’.
The stand-out song on Disc One is Joni with its fast 108bpm pulse and rhythmically slapped nylon-string guitar. As one would expect, it recalls Joni Mitchell’s acoustic work on Blue and, particularly, the later Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter.
With an E modal major centre, verse one has jazz-like harmonies: Amaj7-G#m7-D9-Amaj7-G#m7-C#m7 etc. with vocals beginning on the Major 7th (SUC Ex. 16) . The second half of the verse has the same falling vocal lines but with greater emotional delivery (SUC Ex. 17) . The chorus – connected to the verse – introduces a striking modulation to C maj7 (SUC Ex. 18) which also appears when the name ‘Joni’ is heard (0:36). The subsequent mention of ‘Joni’ (0:54ff.) is underpinned by a strident tritone guitar arpeggio: an E major chord with a Bb (SUC Ex. 19) . Verse two continues the strophic structure, again suggesting a possible light arrangement. Nevertheless, the song works successfully as it is with voice and classical guitar.
Disc One closes with the slow-picked, nylon-string accompanied She Loves My Life, with its falling bass lines. In G major, the ‘imaginary woman’ brings ‘the dead space to life’ and ‘…moves into the darkness and it comes alight and she takes my hand and guides me to the distant places…’. The song has a mysterious fragility – with its slow crotchet = 69bpm pulse – bringing the first fifteen songs to a meaningful close.
The second disc has an even greater reliance on Americana than the first, with several of the songs having improvisatory and laid-back vocal deliveries.
History Of Rock and Roll
Kicking off in a relatively slow tempo (crotchet = 88bpm) and D modal major, the song recalls an American female star dragged down by the ‘heir to the rock and roll crown’ mantel. The lyrics are telling: ‘We want the future maybe soon, maybe near, when we’re ready, but we act like we hate it/How much is it worth to be free?’ The additional harmonica provides a connection to Bob Dylan and Neil Young.
Quinn’s Old Flame
A song utilising drop-D tuning (capo on fourth fret) and, again, at a slow pace (crotchet – 69bpm), it explores young love and ‘…a born-again loser, he’s Quinn’s old flame’; someone who cannot accept himself as he is.
The style recalls Van Morrison – particularly the Astral Weeks period – and is underpinned by mainly two chords, Eb major and Bb major, with related Ab-(Bb)-C minor. While most of the chordal work is at the seventh and fifth positions, it is powered by a slow slapped rhythm recalling John Martyn, with the third verse muted along with occasional strumming. The vocals are blues-like and improvisatory.
This also has the drop-D tuning, but here white noise – oceanic ambience is added creating a seascape for the narrative: the memory – real or imaginary – of a meeting between a male protagonist and ‘Tremayne’, the latter described as ‘a wild flower (who) plays with love a dangerous thing’. This is clearly the ‘child’s play’ of the title.
This is an up-tempo G major-centred shuffle – again mainly improvisatory – and another song of recollection: here, ‘good time boys and print-through girls’ and ‘I skinny dipped with Madeline.’
A further slow song (crotchet = 63bpm) dealing with life after a broken romance. The strong acoustic guitar introduction of E major, with a slide up to the Major 6th (C#) (SUC Ex. 20) , the vocal melody is classic Vearncombe (SUC Ex. 21) and the harmony (E-A-B-C#m7) provides simple under-girding to the unfolding narrative, with particularly ‘American’ guitar fills (0:31) (SUC Ex. 22) .
The song is not a thousand miles away from some of T.B. Schmitt’s songs in the context of Poco, such as Just Like Me from Rose of Cimarron or the title song of Indian Summer.
The Hurting Kind, Trouble Forgot You, Thumbnail
This Bb-centred song continues in much the same vein, followed by the slow country-waltz, Trouble Forgot You co-written with Graham Henderson. Thumbnail approached with a greater sense of fragility with trebly semi-picked accompaniment.
Waitin’ is a faster rocker and quite different from the previous songs on Disc Two. Up-tempo at crotchet = 136c, it has an abrasive Minor 3rd-based riff reminiscent of Marc Bolan’s Jewel from the T. Rex album (1970) (SUC Ex. 23) .
The G minor modality suits the ominous lyrics and melody line with its b7 and drop of a Minor 3rd (SUC Ex. 24) . Immediately after the word ‘prowling’ the key dips to Eb major, preparing the chorus with its modulation to C (5ths) and E minor, followed by an archetypal guitar ‘break’ (0:50) (SUC Ex. 25) . A loud harmonica blast (1:09) comes like a metaphoric locomotive horn.
Murphy’s, Needle Time, Stormy Waters
E minor and D major introduce the fictional female protagonist with its rising chorus melody and unusual harmony (SUC Ex. 26) along with an Interrupted Cadence (B7-C) (0:56). Needle Time is again Dylanesque with its harmonica introduction, basic structural guitar rhythm and bright C major tonality. Stormy Waters’s muted 3+3+2 rhythmic drive, contrasted by picked guitar chorus, is the backdrop for a narrative of unfaithfulness to ‘set yourself alight on stormy waters.’ The blues atmosphere is offset by a distinct Mexican slant and the dobro-like tone of the guitar fits the story like a glove, with its detuned and muted aggressive rhythm.
The highlight of Disc Two is The Sunshine. A slow ballad, it is the sole song on Smoke Up Close accompanied by piano, which introduces it (SUC Ex. 27) . The voice enters after the first four bars employing an anacrusis, with the right-hand melody of the introduction serving as the melodic line (SUC Ex. 28) .
Impassioned both in its delivery and composition, it scores highly over other similar songs in Vearncombe’s output – such as Ave Lolita – mainly because of its intimate and understated delivery. The end of the verse falls to A major7 (SUC Ex. 29) , and the subsequent G#m/B harmony is well-chosen by avoiding the more obvious B7, all part of the descent from G#-D# in the melody on the word ‘thinking’.
Verse two continues the strophic structure with the last lines, but this time Vearncombe opts for the Dominant 7th (B7) giving the song closure. Verse three and four repeat the first half of the song, except, this time, there is an unresolved A natural at the very end in the piano part (SUC Ex. 30) .
Camilla Griehsel writes: ‘I’d love to think The Sunshine was about me and the children…but Colin and I never discussed it as such, just shared smiling glances as I listened. I think we can safely say it is about us.’ E-mail from Camilla Griehsel, 29-01-23
That Was Yesterday, Blonde Trouble
The penultimate song is the C# minor-centred That Was Yesterday, accompanied this time on 12-string acoustic, leading into the final Blonde Trouble – in Eb minor – which, again, has a decisive Mexican atmosphere with some virtuoso guitar lines. Due to its brevity the song is never overstated.
In a rapidly changing world, Colin Vearncombe opted for an album of more traditional songwriting styles, eschewing electronics and sophisticated production techniques in favour of a solo acoustic style that would be less likely to date over time. Like Nick Drake’s third album, Pink Moon, Vearncombe chose economy of means as a means to make an album of spontaneous, enduring material.
It must be said that Vearncombe fell back on what he knew to create spontaneous material in a remarkably short period, but the songwriting tradition is less interested in innovation and novelty than in creating finely wrought, well-performed music. Narratives and ‘messages’ tend to be utilised in this context, whether it be protest (Dylan) or ecology (Joni Mitchell), and perhaps Vearncombe referenced the then-current postmodern ethos undergirding albums like Beck’s Sea Change. Whether the songs on Smoke Up Close were written too quickly and easily and without the required distancing, is not quite to the point: the project brief was to write thirty songs in a short period of time and not necessarily by the means of inspiration.
With the door of his former notoriety – centred on Wonderful Life and Sweetest Smile – now closed firmly behind him, Colin Vearncombe strode into the future regardless of then-current trends, keen to stick with the acoustic songwriting tradition. He also began to sense two distinct personal musical types: music/albums identified with the Black legacy, involving large production and arrangements; music/albums identified as Colin Vearncombe with more modest, mainly acoustic accompanying features and simpler, more intimate production values. While both could be utilised in different contexts, Smoke Up Close is the most extreme example of the latter category.
Author: Andrew Keeling © 2023 Nero Schwarz Music Limited