Water on Snow

Essay No. 6 in the series The Music of Black (Colin Vearncombe)

by Andrew Keeling

Water on Snow

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Wider Background
Music – 2000
Water On Snow – the album
Creative Process
Structure, Tempo and Key
The Songs


One year after The Accused, Colin Vearncombe released his sixth studio album, Water on Snow, during 2000 – the Millennium year. This suggests that during his earlier sabbatical, he had amassed a collection of new songs. If the releases up to this time had pointed to US-influences, and The Accused had consolidated that, then Water On Snow is the final affirmation that he had completely assimilated the atmosphere of America. The album, as well as The Accused, would trigger low-key solo concert performances, building on his Abbey Road ‘live’ in 1999, also providing Vearncombe the opportunity to completely strip-back his style. Taking one acoustic guitar, and with backing vocals from Camilla Griehsel, Vearncombe re-recorded some of his back-catalogue as well as new songs such as Alive. As a result, he was able to microscopically explore the material’s fine detail without the clutter of accompanying musicians. This would both spawn the approach of both The Accused and, particularly Water On Snow, giving him confidence to perform ‘live’ in a solo capacity.

In 2001, Vearncombe performed at venues such as Edinburgh’s Pleasance Cabaret Club, where his outgoing and confident manner inspired a critic to write, ‘He tells stories behind his songs simply and without fuss, and they thrive without the added instrumentation of much of his recorded material…There’s also plenty of evidence to suggest that, while his recent LPs haven’t troubled the chart compilers much, he has lost none of his songwriting strengths…The Way She Was before, from his debut album under his own name, ranks with the finest compositions, while Alive, from his latest effort, is a startlingly beautiful work.’ [1]Edinburgh Evening News, 26-11-2001  A further concert review underlines the strengths of Water On Snow: ‘Water On Snow…a sublime collection of grown up, sophisticated pop music that gives his (Vearncombe’s) Scott Walkerish crooning melancholia a perfect canvas to display all its warm, late night, starry skies romanticism. Famous finds him dancing an ironic tango, while Go Home gets into finger-snapping mood. Cool shows a touch of the dancey Bowies, but it’s on the likes of the brushed and bruised languor of Black Eyes Susan and the meltingly gorgeous Alive that he burnishes the heart.’ [2]Birmingham 101, 22-02-2002

These reviews and the immediate listening experience of Water On Snow, demonstrates that the album is not just an album laden with Americana. As ever, Vearncombe’s personal musical language is consistently present and, with the immaculately produced arrangements and structure, something very personal emerges and in keeping with previous releases. The paired-down approach – even more so compared with The Accused – and the beautiful mnemonic nature of the songs, leaves an immediate impression on a listener.

Wider Background

The year 2000 was the Millennium year and in January the Millennium Dome, on the River Thames in London, was opened by the Queen in preparation for the celebrations. The UK was hit by a widespread ‘flu epidemic and Dr. Harold Shipman was jailed for life for the murder of a least fifteen of his patients, later emerging he had probably killed at least 215 people. During the following month, the second Chechen War ended when Russian forces captured the capital, Grozny. In the world of technology, Windows 2000 computer software was released revolutionising the fast-developing internet. During March, former Chilean dictator, General Pinochet, was deported from the UK and Pope John Paul II issued an apology for the wrongs of the Roman Catholic Church while, in May, the film Gladiator, featuring Russell Crowe, premiered. Meanwhile, May Day riots in London saw the desecration of a statue of Sir Winston Churchill and The Cenotaph. Tate Modern also opened in London. During the summer, Prime Minister, Tony Blair, met with a hostile response during a speech at the Women’s Institute, and the Millennium Bridge closed a month after its opening during to a structural fault. July brought the long-awaited publication of J.K. Rowling’s fourth book in the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and in the music world Coldplay’s Parachutes was released. Big Brother was to also air for the first time on TV attracting mass audiences and anticipating the world of social media. Concorde crashed tragically killing 113 people triggering its eventual withdrawal from service. During August, the Queen Mother celebrated her 100th birthday and, in the month following, anti-globalisation protests in Prague turned violent at the World Bank and IMP summits. The autumn’s Australian Olympic Games saw the USA win the most gold medals and Wembley Stadium closed after seventy-seven years taking a further nine years to refurbish. November’s US Presidential election between Al Gore and George W. Bush was inconclusive, prompting recounts. Bush would eventually win after the US Supreme Court resolved the issue. Hillary Clinton was the first US First Lady to win election to public office when she was elected to the US Senate. President Bill Clinton became the first US President to visit Vietnam. In December, George W. Bush became President of the US, and the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant was finally closed. Coming full-circle a year after it was first opened, the Millennium Dome was closed.

Music – 2000

With the internet firmly established and continuing to grow, alongside the ethos of postmodernism now embedded in collective consciousness, indie music continued to diversify becoming evermore individual and ripped-away from its traditional rock n’roll and blues roots. Computer technology was now the essential cornerstone in the fast-changing industry combined with mix n’match styles derived from a postmodern approach which plundered the past by intelligently making the old into something often radically new. Indie labels continued to democratise the industry, with its artists reacting against mainstream populism considered to be in the process of diluting musical truth. The result was widespread opposition to a mainstream bent on the promotion of music for mass consumption. While chart music tended to be dominated by hip-hop, R&B was modernised by a kind of neo-soul outlook but, at the same time, indie bands would also become increasingly popularised. For example, Air, David Gray, Green Day, Wheatus, Moby and Macy Gray were found rubbing shoulders with Britney Spears, Pink and Destiny’s Child, reminiscent of the early 1970s when the music of bands such as Free, Deep Purple and Black Sabbath would also enter the charts.

Indie music in 2000 saw the rise of a number of important and original artists – originality would become the watchword for many, as well as circumnavigating the immediate past – such as Modest Mouse (The Moon and Antarctica), Idlewild (Broken Windows), Super Furry Animals (Mwng), Death Cab for Cutie (We Have The Facts and We’re Voting Yes), Eels (Daisies of the Galaxy), The Sea And The Cake (Oui), The Go-Betweens (The Friends of Rachel Worth), Primal Scream (XTRMNTR) and so on. 

Here, several important indie releases from the year will be discussed so as to place Colin Vearncombe’s Water on Snow in a musico-cultural context.

Radiohead – Kid A

A band not content to rest on its laurels, Kid A dismantled anything remotely resembling their previous releases. Beginning with the treated Rhodes piano’s repeated C-Dbmaj7-Cm/Eb loop of Everything In Its Right Place, Thom Yorke’s treated looped vocals resemble a kind of automaton epitomising the postmodern neurosis, made particularly unsettling with the vocal accumulation and transformation and absence of drums. The title track’s reduced electronic textures and vocoder vocals mesh with the cover-art’s snow-capped mountains. It is as though Radiohead are conceptually frozen. Here, the drums are treated and looped and the strings, when they eventually arrive, are reduced to one sustained chord. The F#-D/F natural-D bass riff and drum-groove, of The National Anthem may appear as a return to rock-like textures, but it is short-lived as orchestral cut-ups create dislocation. The sax riff which emerges is as menacing as the remainder of the texture comprising just two pitches (D-C), and the stripped-down brass ensemble serves as the backdrop for trombone solo and free-form trumpet solo (4:08ff.) reminiscent of Keith Tippett’s big band, Centipede. How To Disappear Completely segues with acoustic guitar and distanced textures, although the harmonic basis (verses: D-F#m; chorus: A-F#m) with Yorke’s vocal (‘I’m not here…this isn’t happening) summarises the overall approach of the album. The orchestral strings are more textured than simply accompaniment. Treefingers returns to the strangeness with its sustained synthesizers. Perhaps the influence of Sigur Ros is apparent or, even, the desire to make something approaching a soundtrack. Optimistic’s 7/8-9/8 metres, slipping into 4/4 for the acoustic riff, approach more typical Radiohead territory. Tracks such as In Limbo continue the strangeness, while Idioteque points the way forward to the music found on Yorke’s first solo album, The Eraser. While Morning Bell connects with the Rhodes piano of the opener, and the 10/8 metre fuses with the irrational metres of Optimistic, the closing Motion Picture Soundtrack utilises harmonium and simple G-C-Bm-C harmony.

The Polyphonic Spree – The Beginning Stages…

Formed by singer/songwriter Tim DeLaughter following the demise of his previous band, The Polyphonic Spree attempted to reflect influences such as The Beatles, The 5th Dimension and The Beach Boys. The band grew to personnel of twenty-four in a remarkably short period of time recording The Beginning Stages… in 2000 and using it as a calling-card for promotional purposes. The album was eventually released in 2002. 

Robed in white and looking more like a traditional choir – with religious associations cast aside – The Polyphonic Spree accompany their choral-like vocals with instruments such as flute, strings, harp, trombone and French horn alongside the more usual guitars, keyboards, synthesizers, bass and drums. The album, a prog-like concept representing a complete day, begins with Section 1 – Have A Day/Celebratory – resembles a contemporary Edwin Hawkins Singers or, even, Moondog. Section 2 – It’s The Sun – utilises keyboard and strings with massed voices, with DeLaughter’s voice as the foreground feature, but with piccolo obbligato and timpani rolls. The sheer joy in the music is palpable along with an apparent Beach Boys and Beatles influence. Section 3 – Days Like This Keep Me Warm – introduce a quiet warmth with piano, harmonium, flute, horn and bass moving from a slow 4/4 to 6/8 and harmony of Ebmaj7-Bb|Bb/A|G set as a looped refrain. Section 4 – La La – is up-tempo guitar, bass and drums with the wordless La La’s used as a repeated riff with synths and brass interjections. Section 5 – Middle of the Day – is again slow with bowed cymbal and electronics comprising flute and trombone, segueing into Section 6 – Hanging Around The Day Pt. 1 also segueing into the descending chords, utilising repeated strings, of Section 7 – Hanging Around The Day Pt. 2. Section 10 – A Long Day – comprises treated sustained vocals on a static F major chord moving to D major and back, appropriate for the end of day. The piece ends with female F# vocal, overlapped electronically with male vocal. At this stage, The Polyphonic Spree epitomise the postmodern tendency to fuse assorted styles of the past to make something truly their own.

P.J. Harvey – Stories From The City, Songs From The Sea

P.J. Harvey’s fifth solo album relates to the singer/songwriter’s love of New York and led to her winning the 2001 Mercury prize. Songs were written both in New York and her native Dorset, UK, and features a duet with Radiohead’s Thom Yorke on The Mess We’re In. Harvey felt the music was more melodic than her previous releases wanting it to be ‘sumptuous and beautiful’. The simple Good Fortune charted at No. 24 with the album eventually going platinum in the UK. Beginning with the direct metric shifts of Big Exit – made mainly from an open G chord – it is followed by the bright rocker Good Fortune’s oscillating Am-G’s, including a memorable vocal hookline also comprising G-F# over a C major chord. A Place Called Home bears the influence of Jeff Buckley’s Grace, also apparent on One Line’s 7/4 metre yet, here, everything is reduced until the kick-in (1:08). The Mess We’re In has Thom Yorke’s more straightforward compared to his work with Radiohead. The entire album is approachable, modern indie pop even down to the 6/8 sway of You Said Something and the slow-pulsed Ebmaj7-F6/9 detuned guitars of Horses In My Dreams, with its acoustic guitars and piano and Harvey’s circling vocal. The piano bass riff (D-D-E-F – 0-2-3) of the closer, We Float, is arresting with its drum-groove and octave vocals. 

Goldfrapp – Felt Mountain

One of the prime-movers of the early twenty-first century postmodern outlook was the Scott Walker, movie soundtrack-like duo, Goldfrapp. With songs influenced by the likes of Shirley Bassey and Bobbie Gentry, writers Will Gregory and Alison Goldfrapp begin Felt Mountain with Lovely Head with pivot-note chording (Fm-E-Bb7-Bbm) and, with a whistled melody line, medium-paced percussion and textures of strings and synths transport the 1960s into the 2000s. The harpsichord F#m-Bm, close harmony vocals and simple acoustic guitar single-pitch rhythms combined with phased strings and electronics of Paper Bags create something close to ‘60s film score territory. Human’s high strings and repeated electric piano chords, along with Goldfrapp’s sensuous vocals are offset by rising semitonal synth. Deer Stop’s John Barry/Robert Kirby-like strings belie the gravity of the vocal line. The closing Horse Tears has simple, slow piano with Goldfrapp’s vocal range pivoting between a soft delivery and high drama transforming the song into cabaret. 

Modest Mouse – The Moon and Antarctica

This US band’s third album’s title is taken from the film, Bladerunner. Recorded on a major label, fans became concerned the band might change their sound and overall indie ethos. Produced by Brian Deck, the album begins with the acoustic guitar B-G/D-G Major 3rds of Third Planet, the rhythmic becoming more decisive with the G-C chordal attacks for the chorus. Gravity Rising includes backwards recorded guitar chords giving way to an acoustic rhythm, simply achieved with E-A chording and rim-shot drums, whereas Dark Centre of the Universe’s descending electric guitars are offset by glissandi slide guitars. Former-Smith’s guitarist, Johnny Marr, would later join the band. 

Her Space Holiday – Home Is Where You Hang Yourself

The brainchild of Marc Bianchi, the ‘band’ went on to produce six albums, with the early ones having a mainly electronic stance, with Home Is Where…released on Witchita Records. The album anticipates later releases such as Manic Expressive and is more guitar oriented. With the title track basically just picked electric guitar on an A minor chord, strings and drums are gradually added with a purely electronic central section. Snakecharmer’s atmospherics and fragmentary percussion alongside timpani offset by long sustained vocal chords, anticipate something more conventional, with G-C electric guitar chords as a 3/4 waltz, with the word ‘snakecharmer’ repeated throughout, segueing with the looped string synths and distanced rim-shot drums of Through the Eyes of a Child. All songs are mnemonic narratives, such as Our First Date outlining Bianci’s attachment to long-term girlfriend Keely, set as a slow-picked guitar loop with sustained electronic atmospheres, slightly developing during the middle section as retrograde string lines (C-D-E-D-C). The later Manic Expressive records Bianchi’s break-up with girlfriend, Keely. 

The Delgados – The Great Eastern

Scottish band, The Delgados started their own Chemical Underground label, to release their own music alongside bands such as Mogwai and Arab Strap. Beginning with piano and brass accompanying the voice, with a close Tom Waits influence, the album quickly moves onto Accused of Stealing as a more traditional rock song with its D-E-G chording, but with shifting metres from 4/4 to 3/4. The influence of Belle and Sebastian on American Trilogy is clearly felt, anticipating the latter’s 2003 release, Dear Catastrophe Waitress. No Danger includes a narrative structure as a medium-paced rocker with big anthemic chorus. ‘Earthy’ is perhaps the most appropriate to describe the music of The Delgados.

Tom Waits – An Overview

A short overview of the music of Tom Waits is included because Waits’ influence on the second period of Colin Vearncombe’s musical output can be discerned, perhaps not in terms of style but certainly as regards some of the arrangements, production and atmosphere.

Coming to prominence in the early 1970s, Waits’ first album, Closing Time (1973), was noteworthy because of the song Ol’ 55, subsequently covered by The Eagles on their third album, On the Border. Closing Time includes songs such as Martha and Grapefruit Moon providing graphic hints of the songwriter’s vivid imagination and Beat Generation images of late-night bars. Musically accompanied by upright piano, Miles Davies-like trumpet obbligati, upright bass and light drums the album, released by David Geffen’s Asylum Records, anticipated the second The Heart of Saturday Night, including the title track with its traffic noise, footsteps and simple D major harmony accompanying Waits’ ever-present bar-room drawl. However, it is Diamonds On My Windshield which points the way forward with its spoken narrative delivery, upright bass and drums played with brushes in a fast-swing style, all as a vehicle for the beat-jazz poetry penned by Waits himself. 1978’s Blue Valentyne develops the preceding year’s Small Change with its jazz narratives, as well as reducing harmonic elements Including a cover of Bernstein’s Somewhere from West Side Story, now in a voice scarred by cigarettes and alcohol, it somewhat resembles Louis Armstrong. However, it is the emotive Kentucky Avenue which carries the weight of the album. Delivered over rubato piano (A9/C#-D-[Bm-E]) and reserving its main impact late in the song with entry of the strings, it underlines the protagonist’s hope that his disabled friend might escape with him to New Orleans. Ever-more denuded songs appear such as Red Shoes By the Drugstore, with its sprechtstimme vocal delivery, accompanied by soft tom-toms, upright bass, muted electric guitar and occasional B minor electric piano arpeggiations. In 1980, Waits left Asylum Records, heading to New York from California with new wife/theatre director Kathleen Brennan. This was to affect his writing style in no uncertain terms. The Island Records release, Rain Dogs (1985), includes vignette-like songs within a kind of Berlin Cabaret atmosphere, characterised by marimbas, muted tom-toms, upright bass, minimal guitar and keyboard accompaniments. The slow Clap Hands with its reduced B minor to G major (i-bVI), along with Marc Ribot’s spikey, angular electric guitar, is reduced by the more modernist Berlin Cabaret-style of Cemetery Polka and chamberlain organ accompaniment, and Jockey Full of Bourbon with Ribot’s guitar obbligato cutting against Waits’ whispered, spoken vocal and off-beat woodblock. The atonal piano of Tango Till They’re Sore, along with the trombone of Big Black Mariah, anticipate Waits’ ‘gospel’ album, Bone Machine (1992). The strangeness of Bone Machine is immediate from the opening Earth Died Screaming, with its accompanying muted electric guitar, upright-bass, multi-track sticks and bass drum colouring Waits’ vision of the Apocalypse. The sustained Fm-Db-Eb harmony of the following Dirt In the Ground, with Waits’ impassioned vocal and piano together with footsteps at the very back of the mix, continues with All Stripped Down and its sax ensemble. The inclusion of the song Who Are You, co-written with Kathleen Brennan, and the nightmarish The Ocean Doesn’t Want Me, accompanied by Waits on chamberlain and percussion alone, continues with Jesus Gonna Be here with its blues-like spiritual overtones. Whistle Down the Wind is a glimpse of the lyrical Waits of old, although the big drama of a song such as Kentucky Avenue are now reduced to a single fiddle and steel-guitar. There is even a song co-written with The Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards, who also sings and plays guitar. The third period’s Mule Variations continues the style of Bone Machine, while Blood Money and Alice would earn Waits multiple awards and fuse his musicals The Black Rider and Alice with the later period.

Water On Snow – the album

Creative Process

Water On Snow stands a long way apart from the indie collective. As with The Accused, it veers towards the acoustic and singer-songwriter traditions, engaging more with American styles than its immediate British contemporaries. Producer and arranger, Martin Green comments on Vearncombe’s creative stance as applied to the album:

‘My memories of this album are a little sketchy for some reason, especially the planning stage. I do know Colin was still involved with and being influenced by the same group of songwriters from The Accused. After the on-the-fly nature of the making of The Accused, I think the concept was to do it in a more traditional way with Water On Snow, although I don’t clearly remember the early conversations about it. Consequently, there was a full band tracking phase for all the songs at Battery Studios, which used to be known as Power Plant, one of Robin Millar’s old studios (where Colin spent a lot of time and where Comedy was recorded and mixed). Unfortunately studio 1, which had a fantastic live room and a very good desk was at that time known as The Aquarium was run by Steve Lipson for his own use, so not available. Colin had worked with Clare Kenny, Martin Ditcham and Calum McColl on previous projects, so it was quite a domestic atmosphere in the studio, although it would have been nicer to have a slightly more live sounding room for the band to work with. Although this part of the process was not quite ideal, I do think that Colin’s performances were some of his best ever. Exorcising the ghosts of the past was probably in his mind, especially with the re-recording of songs like You Lift Me Up (from the Fly Up To The Moon single, 1991), which upon reflection sounded perhaps a little dated.

So, having done the live band thing at Battery, we took the tapes and transferred them onto our Pro Tools system which was in the room we shared in Tomato’s premises in Lexington Street, adding overdubs in the same way as on The Accused, apart from the piano, Hammond and celeste which were recorded in Abbey Road Studio One by Hayden Bendall. Graham Henderson did some great work over what was a very long day, broken up by the presence of Gavyn Wright and his usual suspects to record the string arrangement for Famous.

After doing some editing and tidying up, the mixing was done at Peasmarsh Studio in Kent. This was Robin Millar’s idea I think, by virtue of the presence of a rare and unusual Helios mixing desk. Colin Fairley was another Power Plant regular, and in hindsight it might have been better if he’d have recorded as well as mixed as he’s quite an old-school balance engineer – some of the things that we’d recorded perhaps needed more of a radical and getting stuck in approach to make them work.

Mastering was also done in a far more traditional way than on The Accused, at Whitfield Street by Bob Whitney (I think). In spite of some shortcomings, in addition to Colin’s great performances the album does have some fantastic contributions from guest musicians, especially Alison Clark, and I think it turned out in a way that doesn’t pin it to a specific era, which I believe is what Colin intended.’ [3]E-mail from Martin Green, 10.07.22


As with the previous albums, a wide pool of musicians are included. 

Alive – vocals, Colin Vearncombe; backing vocals, Alison Clark; bass, Clare Kenny; drums, Martin Ditcham; electric guitar, Calum MacColl; piano, Graham Henderson. Writer, Colin Vearncombe.

Last Day Of A Long Winter – vocal and acoustic guitar, Colin Vearncombe; slide guitar, Calum MacColl. Writer, Colin Vearncombe.

Black Eyed Susan – vocals and acoustic guitar; baritone guitar, Calum MacColl; bass, Clare Kenny; drums, Martin Ditcham; organ, Graham Henderson; vibes, Roger Beaujolais. Writers, Vearncombe, Marr and Griffiths.

Water On Snow – vocal and acoustic guitar, Colin Vearncombe; vocal (a capella), Alison Clark; backing vocal, Camilla Griehsel; bass, Clare Kenny; drums, Martin Ditcham; electric guitar and dulcimer, Calum MacColl; piano and organ, Graham Henderson. Writer, Colin Vearncombe.

Let The Wind Blow – vocal and acoustic guitar, Colin Vearncombe; backing vocals, Alison Clark and Calum MacColl; baritone guitar, Calum MacColl; bass, Clare Kenny; drums, Martin Ditcham. Writer, Colin Vearncombe.

You Lift Me Up – vocal and acoustic guitar, Colin Vearncombe; backing vocal, Alison Clark; bass, Clare Kenny; drums, Martin Ditcham; piano, Graham Henderson. Writer, Colin Vearncombe.

Famous – vocal, Colin Vearncombe; backing vocals, Alison Clark, Calum MacColl, Camilla Griehsel; bass, Clare Kenny, drums, Martin Ditcham; electric guitar, Calum MacColl; Martin Green, clarinet and flute; strings – violins, Gavyn Wright, Boguslav Kostecki, Pat Kiernan; violas, Bruce White, Pete Lale; celli, Tony Pleeth, Martin Loveday. Arranged by Martin Green. Writers, Vearncombe, Dore.

Go Home – vocal, acoustic and electric guitars, dobro, harmonica, Colin Vearncombe; backing vocals, Colin Vearncombe, Duke D’Kew, Luke Brightly; bass, Clare Kenny; drums and percussion, Martin Ditcham; nylon-string guitar, Calum MacColl. Writers, Vearncombe, Topley.

Cool – vocals, acoustic guitar and Wurlitzer organ, Colin Vearncombe; bass, Clare Kenny; drums and percussion, Martin Ditcham; electric guitar and backing vocal, Calum MacColl; organ, Graham Henderson. Writers, Vearncombe and Page.

Structure, Tempo and Key

Unlike previous releases, Water On Snow includes nine songs:

Last Day Of A Long Winter
Black Eyes Susan
Water On Snow
Let The Wind Blow
You Lift Me Up
Go Home

Starting with the reasonably slow-paced Alive (crotchet bpm = 88), the pulse remains for the next song, The Last Day Of A Long Winter (crotchet bpm = 76). Black Eyed Susan’s slow waltz (dotted-crotchet bpm = 42c.) continues in a similar vein. The a cappella female voice of the title track sounds ad. libitum, until Vearncombe’s voice accompanied by instruments enters, defining the tempo (crotchet bpm = 66). Let The Wind Blow continues. Here the pulse is 4/4, crotchet bpm = 100 but is as felt as 2/2, minim bpm = 50. You Lift Me Up is another slow waltz (dotted-crotchet bpm = 40 [quaver bpm = 120]) followed by the tango of Famous (crotchet bpm = 100). Go Home increases the pulse (crotchet bpm = 112), curving upwards for the final song, Cool (crotchet bpm = 116). The upward tempo curve towards the end is best seen in diagrammatic form:

Diagram 1 (track number, tempo, curve)

88764266100 (50)40 (120)100112116

Tempo differentiation is related to texture, which is generally reduced. This will be discussed more fully in the song commentaries.

The keys of Water On Snow are mainly cast in major modes:

Diagram 2 (song, key)

AliveB major
Last Day Of A Long WinterG major
Black Eyed SusanD major
Water on SnowEb minor
Let The Wind BlowDb major
You Lift Me UpE major
FamousAb major
Go HomeEb major
Cool(Bb major) F major

With only two songs in the minor mode, combined with mainly moderate or slow tempi, together with the increase of tempi towards the end, a sense of ambivalence is created. This is underlined by the long-term tritone trajectory in the harmonic background (B major – F major). ( WoS Ex. 1 ) It is unclear from the above diagram precisely what the ‘home’ key actually is, because the mainly indecisive journey – felt as a jolt in tritone from start to finish – visits unrelated keys en route. It is not atonal or academic in any sense as the placing of songs was carried out more than likely by feel and what sounded most appropriate. The only key re-visited is Eb minor (Water On Snow/Go Home), although there are semitone relationships between some of the songs i.e. Black Eyed Susan (D major) and Water On Snow (Eb minor). It might be said that the structure tends to ‘wander’ in harmonic terms, with the absence of harmonic rootedness i.e. without a conclusive key/mode centre, and perhaps this might be a metaphor for Vearncombe’s search for an established musical style; at least a style which successfully fused the first with the second period of his output and which he might utilise in a solo capacity, as singer-songwriter.

The overall ambivalence in the long-term harmony is also reinforced by the differing styles of Famous and Cool as compared to the remainder of the album, yet even these songs work well after repeated listenings. Even more so than The Accused and, more importantly, the album represents an ongoing reduction of means in all areas: songs, performances, instrumental forces, arrangements and production. This has implications for what was to follow afterwards in Vearncombe’s output. 


The album’s front-cover artwork by John Warwicker is, in a sense, a quasi-Cubist representation of water on snow. Not only does it edge its way in behind appearances but is symbolic of the reduction at work in the music. Having simple blue and silver rectangles on a white background, the CD comes in a triple gatefold-sleeve, with a blurred black and white photograph of Vearncombe on the back and a pull-out lyric booklet.

The Songs

Compared to mainstream artists, and even those in the indie ‘mainstream’, Colin Vearncombe here tends to avoid musical novelty, preferring narrative-style song-writing styles, craft and performance. Having been part of mainstream fashions in the mid to late 1980s, by 2000 he was to avoid further accolades in search of something of lasting worth, though this tended to be ignored by the mass audience.


Set at crotchet bpm = 80, Alive sets the tone of the album. Beginning with Vearncombe’s picked acoustic guitar on an A major and A major suspended chord, it has a capo on the second fret making the key actually B major. ( WoS Ex. 2 ) Verse one vocals enter over the same accompaniment but reinforced by bass, with a shift to F# major for the second phrase and a momentary pause in movement (0:29), climbing upwards with just voice and bass for the words ‘than a scream’. ( WoS Ex. 3 ) With the addition of Alison Clark’s backing vocals, the music literally grows louder (0:41), ( WoS Ex. 4 ) and is followed by the memorable chorus. ( WoS Ex. 5 ) The substitute E minor harmony (iv) (0:56) is a singularly 1960s touch in harmonic terms, especially underlining the subject of the song stated in the subsequent phrase: ‘lying in your arms again.’

Verse two and chorus follows the strophic structure with increased activity in the rhythm section and the strong Middle8 (2:19ff.) is direct electric guitar, bass and drums is powered by tambourine. ( WoS Ex. 6 ) The second half of the Middle8 softens and includes a subtle harmonic twist with an A major first inversion under the words ‘And some people act like they’re immaturing’: G#m E | A/C#. At the very end of the central section Vearncombe adds a jazz discord in the guitar, perhaps to underline the words, ‘I don’t know if I am growing younger’ with a subsequent resolution. ( WoS Ex. 7 )

The chorus follows as before with the word once again extended at the end. The song is framed by a repeat of the acoustic guitar introductory material and a repeat of the first verse line, ‘Listen to the silence growing louder’ minus any additional accompanying texture.

Last Day Of A Long Winter

This second song seems slower than it actually is because of the much-reduced texture of just voice, acoustic guitar and Calum MacColl’s electric slide guitar. The reduced texture is a metaphor for the lyric ‘I like alone’, the decline of summer into winter and the transformation of sweetness into bitterness.

The acoustic guitar part has a falling middle part (G-F#-E-D) as part of a G major chord. ( WoS Ex. 8 ) Although the tempo is crotchet = 76, the guitar is played with a degree of freedom. Voice enters for verse one over the introductory guitar part (0:31), pointing-up Vearncombe’s introverted and confessional style ( WoS Ex. 9 ) The second half of the verse repeats but with a poignant, silent pause (1:09-1:10) following the words ‘why keep the pain around us’. 

A dramatic fall to Bb major7 (1:23) for the words ‘both too tired and old’ varies the harmony. ( WoS Ex. 10 ) Continuing with a varied second verse, the chorus is fused to the verse end, and Vearncombe discards the former chromatic descending inner part in the guitar line heard in the introduction in favour of basic harmony (G-C9-D [no 3rd]). The chorus is repeated three times at the end, reinforcing the subject and it is only here that the falling inner line is introduced to the guitar part by framing the song’s structure.

Black Eyed Susan

This song takes its name from the flower, is slow (dotted-crotchet = 46) and, again, is an aching love song; more specifically, a song of love in absentia. Interestingly, C.G. Jung comments flowers symbolise feelings. It is Colin Vearncombe at his most romantic but, at the same time, it is dark and despondent. It also highlights the songwriter’s ability to word paint. 

Calum MacColl’s low-strung baritone electric guitar begins in slow arpeggio motion. ( WoS Ex. 11 ) The speed and character are apt from the lyric, ‘After the party, when I’m more drunk than lonely, sinking down’, with the phrase descending to a low tessitura. ( WoS Ex. 12 ) The drunken, depressive state is enhanced by the empty texture. There is some upward motion, but only in harmonic terms with the words ‘… only sweet thought of you’ where the accompanying guitar arpeggios rise to B minor and Bb major. ( WoS Ex. 13 ) And then the true character in the choice of a slow waltz becomes apparent with the lyric, ‘I see you waltzing in slow, slow circles’, with the word ‘slow’ tied – dragged, in fact – over the beat, reinforced by the slow vibes. Then, a masterly touch ‘with your hair hanging down like a waterfall’ in painted with the descending harmony. ( WoS Ex. 14

The chorus (1:18ff.), with its chromatic, downward harmonies, highlight the slow dance as well as the altered conscious state. ( WoS Ex. 15 ) The introduction for verse two retains the guitar arpeggios, but with more prominent vibraphone and the verse continuing the song’s strophic structure.

There is something of John Martyn’s song, Solid Air, about Black Eyed Susan particularly in the Middle8 where the vibes become soloistic, and a vibrato-saturated Hammond organ adds a blues-feel to the texture.

The chorus again follows but, with the introduction of a male protagonist, the song is made painfully poignant, closing with the emptiness of the baritone D major arpeggiations which serves as architectural framing.

Water On Snow

The gradual collapse of tempo finds its ultimate expression on the central title song, Water On Snow which begins as an unaccompanied song for the solo voice of Alison Clark. Lasting a minute and a half – as possibly the remnant of an originally accompanied section – it is now reduced to just voice alone. ( WoS Ex. 16 ) The solo line takes on the character of an Indian mode with its leaping tritone intervals, and the ‘cold, silent water’ of the song is underlined as an image of doomed love having isolation at the root.

With the band entering softly (1:29ff.) and led by Vearncombe’s picked acoustic guitar, it becomes apparent this is indeed a dialogue between two protagonists. ( WoS Ex. 17 In the dark mode of Eb minor, Vearncombe’s voice rises and falls like water finding the path of least resistance, in a dramatic Scott Walker-like delivery. Soft piano, high sustained Hammond organ, bass and drums – with brushes – accompany, with the harmony kept purposely simple (i-iv-V7), and the ’flat line of your smile’ is captured in a Goldfrapp-like 1960s quasi-postmodern setting.

Rising to the chorus (2:41), a harmony duet between Camilla Griehsel and Vearncombe takes the drama up to a crescendo ( WoS Ex. 18 ), eventually collapsing into the second verse in this further strophically structured song. The chorus emerges a second time with a central Richard Thompson-like electric guitar solo by Calum MacColl, and a third chorus eventually appears, this time powered by additional tambourine driving the rhythm section. A downward Eb minor scale by the dulcimer, together with an Eb minor guitar arpeggio brings the song to completion.

The power of the song is writ large when considered from a ‘live’ performance. Recorded at a studio gig in London during 2010 (Black – Water on Snow – YouTube), Vearncombe management notes: ‘The performance was exceptional and a seminal moment in Colin’s career. It certainly sparked a passionate response.’ [4]E-mail from Collin Vearncombe management, 22-08-22 Featuring Vearncombe (vocals and guitar), Calum MacColl (electric guitar), Simon Edwards (bass) and Liam Bradley (drums and vocals), the song has been modified compared to the album version. Beginning with MacColl’s distant and atmospheric guitar soundscape, it provides the necessary underlay for Vearncombe’s voice replacing Alison Clark’s original solo vocal delivery. Transposed up a semitone from the original Eb minor into E modal minor, the tempo is also slightly slower (crotchet bpm=63) providing greater expressive scope for Vearncombe’s impassioned vocal, which soars high over the instrumental ensemble. MacColl’s now clean-timbred Gretch electric is clear and precise, counterpointing the lead voice, and the Middle8 solo further explores the Richard Thompson-like turns and arabesques. 

Let The Wind Blow

This song is beautiful and understated, the band accompaniment has a simple effectiveness, but it is the chorus which takes the weight of the song. Once heard, and like some of Vearncombe’s best melodies, it is difficult to shake from the mind. ( WoS Ex. 19 ) During the verses MacColl’s baritone guitar, besides adding soft sustained texture, includes occasional references to the chorus melody.

You Lift Me Up

This is as a re-write of an earlier b-side, is in keeping with Colin Vearncombe’s interest in re-inventing earlier output in a new, more authentic manner. The slow walt tempo continues the laid-back atmosphere of the album as a whole. Saturated with piano and Vearncombe’s ever-present acoustic rhythm guitar, it is again saturated with soft piano. A song about ‘afterglow’, it is more hopeful than the darker songs which precede it. 


Suddenly, the darkness lifts with Vearncombe’s sardonic take on fame. Presented as an upbeat tango, it is complete with pizzicato strings in Ab major mode, ( WoS Ex. 20 ) with a lazy piano riding the main beat. 

Verse one begins the tongue-in-cheek observation of a longed-for world of the rich and famous. ( WoS Ex. 21 ) The harmony and rhythm, apart from the piano and voice, keep to the tango rhythm which prepare the chorus arriving with an unexpected jolt. At this point, the texture is reduced to just single voice, celeste arpeggios and soft sustained strings. The celeste provides an otherworldly atmosphere – Hollywood-like, even. It is the first time that strings make an appearance on the album which, unlike The Accused, makes their impact more acutely felt. ( WoS Ex. 22 ) The key change – Cb major-Ab minor – reinforces the textural word-painting. 

The chromatic dips in the strings during the second verse, along with the ‘60s light music rhythms of the second chorus – dotted crotchet, quaver, crotchet in bass and kick-drum – bring the influence of the once chic Scott Walker into stark relief. 

The Middle8, over a verse in the length, with its swirling strings and occasional woodwinds, together with female backing vocals during the following chorus, are further reminiscent of ‘60s. Eventually, the introductory string pizzicato material is heard again as the coda, underpinning Vearncombe’s spoken ‘Tomorrow… there’s always tomorrow’ and whistling over the fade. 

Go Home

A song that refers directly to a Tom Waits-influence, with its quasi-American count-in and reduced arrangement of mainly acoustic guitar and resonant kick-drum on the downbeat. Vearncombe features not only on vocals and acoustic guitar, but also on dobro, harmonica and electric guitar. The second chorus includes low, blues-style/Mississippi-like backing vocals and the central Marc Ribot-like guitar solo, with its trebly Stratocaster dissonant gestures and octaves, brings a total shift to Americana.


This song, although feeling out of context, summarises the entire proceedings. Here, Vearncombe takes on a feminine persona enhanced by Calum MacColl’s falsetto octave backing-vocal. 

Again, driven by resonant kick-drum on the off-beats; bass, two quaver, quaver rest, quaver movement; soft acoustic guitar and piano chords over a root Bb ( WoS Ex. 23 );one single, high C major chord on the final beat of every other bar ( WoS Ex. 24 ), the song’s introduction is set up rhythmically and harmonically. The harmony, essentially in Bb major, creates a lengthy Dominant (V) prolongation. The vocals of verse one are delivered close-up over just bass and drums. 

This is in preparation for the resolution to the home-key of F major in the chorus, felt as a point of arrival. The vocal line, sung in octaves, is irritatingly memorable; once heard, never quite forgotten. ( WoS Ex. 25 ). The introduction and second verse follow the strophic structure, while the Middle8 has dissonant electric piano over the root Bb as an imaginative device for word-painting Vearncombe’s flight of fancy: ‘… We could play blessings or curses, doctors and nurses’. Even though the drums are momentarily suspended, apart from bass guitar, it does return (2:35ff.) for the final chorus. Here, the title is sung without band accompaniment and suspended as ‘so cool…yeah!’ (3:22ff.) bringing both song and album to its conclusion.


As the second album in Colin Vearncombe’s second period of musical output, Water On Snow further builds on the American, singer-songwriter style the artist was intent on exploring. Although seven out of the nine songs present this new creative stance, two of the songs – Famous and Cool – refer back to some of material in his previous output and one – You Lift Me Up – is a re-write. Not that there is ever a direct break with the past: Vearncombe retains his own personal style throughout, felt mainly with his own characteristic vocal and song-writing style, but simply updates his 1980s stance into something more durable. However, the album does exhibit further reduction of musical means – an adoption of a kind of less is more approach – and something initially explored on his Abbey Road ‘live’ recording as a means of reinventing material from the 1980s. This reductionism would find its ultimate expression on the album which would follow: Smoke Up Close.

(Thanks to Martin Green for the loan of the album and for discussing Colin Vearncombe’s creative process on The Accused and Water On Snow – A.K., August, 2022).

Author: Andrew Keeling     © 2022 Nero Schwarz Music Limited

To download a PDF version click here.


1Edinburgh Evening News, 26-11-2001 
2Birmingham 101, 22-02-2002
3E-mail from Martin Green, 10.07.22
4E-mail from Collin Vearncombe management, 22-08-22

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