Water on Stone & The Given

Essay No. 9 in the series The Music of Black (Colin Vearncombe)

by Andrew Keeling

Water on Stone

To download a PDF version click here.

Contents

Introduction
World Events 2009
Music 2009
Water On Stone – Overview
The Given – Overview
Individual Songs
Water On Stone
Tonight We Cross The River
California
Walk On Frozen Water
Tomorrow Is Another Night
I Hate You (Don’t Leave)
Stormy Waters
What Makes A Fool
Grievous Angel
The Given
Naked
Blondes
Chapter And Verse
Breathing Underwater
John Lee Scared
Beneath The Radar
No Second Chances
Misbegotten Child
Water On Stone – a film produced by David Bickley and Colin Vearncombe (Nero DVD15)
Coda
Appendix – Remembering the The Given/Water On Stone sessions by Andy Patterson

Introduction

In 2009 Colin Vearncombe released two albums. The first, The Given, came under Vearncombe’s own name while the other, Water on Stone, came under the Black nomer. Both marked the first releases since 2005’s Between Two Churches.

There are eight songs on each, with Water on Stone’s sleeve-notes commenting, ‘There is no mercy in these songs – no flabby new-age lame excuses. Forgiveness is real and hard or not at all.’ [1]Sleeve-notes to Water On Stone. Nero Schwarz, 2009. The album includes an accompanying DVD of films by David Bickley in which Vearncombe is featured with the songs as soundtracks in striking black and white images. It was released in November of the same year with The Given released earlier in July. Colin Vearncombe management says, ‘We sold Water On Snow and gave The Given away and the results were surprising. People were happy to pay for music they liked, even when it was free.’ [2]Email from Colin Vearncombe management, 5.09.23.

World Events 2009

Although biting hard from January to June, a world recession began to slow during the second half of the year. During January, Israeli forces invaded Gaza, part of the ongoing hostilities between Israel and Palestine following the rise of Hamas who had been governing Gaza since 2007, with UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, calling for an immediate ceasefire. The conflict as to escalate greatly during 2023. During April, 2009, the UK also ended combat operations in Iraq. 

Sixty-one people died in a nightclub fire in Thailand and there were massive earthquakes in New Zealand – causing a mini tsunami – and the Samoan Islands. Meanwhile, North Korea conducted its second nuclear test, while the World Health Organisation declared Swine Flu a global pandemic. 

Barack Obama was inaugurated as US President later being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, with Joe Biden becoming Vice President, later becoming President in 2020.

Conservative leader, David Cameron, wrote about massive debt, social breakdown and political disenchantment being key factors in the run-up to the 2010 UK General Election, also promising to tear down New Labour’s big government bureaucracy.

Carol Ann Duffy became UK Poet Laureate and the video game, Minecraft, was released. Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, Blur, Lady Gaga and The Fleet Foxes performed at the Glastonbury Festival, marking the festival’s rising prominence in pop culture.

Long anticipated, C.G. Jung’s Red Book was finally published forty-eight years after his death, making public for the first time the analytical psychologist’s initial research into the world of the unconscious.

Music 2009

By 2009, with new mobile phone technology improving, digital downloads had become the main form of disseminating music, with the sales of CDs in rapid decline. However, Blur reformed performing a string of ‘live’ dates including London’s Hyde Park, and U2 continued to consolidate their superstar status amassing massive gross revenue from a world tour. The reformed Guns ‘N’ Roses also performed to promote their 2008 album Chinese Democracy, capitalising on earlier popularity. Meanwhile, members of The Foo Fighters, Led Zeppelin and Queen’s of the Stone Age formed Them Crooked Vultures. In the indie rock scene, Muse dominated, although the popularity of a band such as The Cure continued to grow probably due to their ability to cross-over into the mainstream.

The concert for the inauguration of President Barack Obama saw the likes of Beyonce and Aretha Franklin perform to a worldwide audience signifying the dominance of mass pop culture now at the heart of the establishment. In many ways, it was reminiscent of the concert for Queen Elizabeth II’s Golden Jubilee in 2002 with performances from Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood.

However, it was corporate pop which was central to the time which TV programmes like X Factor brought into homes worldwide. Prominent in the pop charts were Beyonce, Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, Miley Cyrus, Kanye West, Rihanna, Katy Perry, Pink, Coldplay, Britney Spears, Kings of Leon and Green Day, the latter forging a link to rock. The Fray, also having presence in the charts, were connected more to the indie scene.  In the indie field – by now functioning as a ‘shadow’ corporate body – bands such as The XX, Anthony (aka Anohni) and the Johnsons, St. Vincent, Florence and the Machine, Camera Obscura, Metric, Richard Hawley, Andrew Bird, Cornershop, Rufus Wainwright, The Paper Chase and The Dodos were prominent. It was ‘out there’ alternative bands Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Horrors – a kind of goth Ramones – and The Drums which were hailed as the new underground by gospel music source, NME. 

A brief overview of several albums from 2009 by Florence and the Machine, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Horrors and Muse will follow.

Florence and the Machine – Lungs

Newcomers, Florence and the Machine, formed in London during 2007. The line-up comprises Florence Welch (vocals), Isabelle Summers (keyboards), Rob Ackroyd (guitar) and Tom Monger (harp) plus guest musicians. They received ‘Critics Choice’ at 2009 Brit Awards. Lungs, the debut album, was released half-way through the year climbing to No. 1 in the album charts in early 2010. Six singles were released from the album with positive critical reception. During 2010 Lungs won MasterCard British album at the Brit Awards. Its success lies in Florence Welch’s versatile vocal style and theatrical delivery as heard on The Dog Days Are Over with its simple G-Am-Em- harmonic underlay, along with abrupt dips in tempo allowing textural space for Welch’s voice. Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up) has harp introduction with up-tempo rhythm and the sudden ‘Raise It Up!’ vocal interjections. Indie music, yes, but also with a techno-folk ethos able to cross-over into the mainstream due probably to the ecological concerns of the millennial generation. I’m Not Calling You A Liar, with solo voice and martial tom-toms and easy-on-the ear F-G harmony, along with Howl’s piano and opening, initially cools the tempo but progressively picks up, with Dm-C-Bb (i-bVII-VI) chording. Between Two Lungs is more mysterious with staccato band interjections over martial drumming and Welch’s wordless voice floating mysteriously above the texture.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs – It’s Blitz

US band, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, was formed in 2000 with Karen O (vocals and piano), Nick Zinner (guitars and keyboards) and Brian Chase (drums). David Pajo, formerly of Slint, joined some time later. It’s Blitz earned a Grammy nomination for Best Alternative Music. The band have an edgy new wave style reminiscent of The Pretenders, as the opener Zero suggests with its high B-E synth sequencing and the Chrissie Hynde-style vocals. The fast tempo has a simple chordal underlay. Heads Wil Roll begins with phased mellotron G# minor harmony, later becoming more rhythmic with the addition of drums, Karen O’s double-tracked vocals and high U2-like guitar. Soft Shock is new wave in style with C-G guitar power-chords. It is Karen O’s voice, not unlike PJ Harvey’s, which is the stand-out feature.

The Horrors – Primary Colours

The Horrors formed in Southend-on-Sea , UK, in 2005, again recalling the post-punk/new wave style of the early 1980s. The band rose in prominence following appearances at London’s 100 Club. Primary Colours is their second album, with the opening Mirror Image’s sustained synth Cmaj7-Fmaj harmony and kick-drum creating tension. Change it does, as the tempo picks-up with a synth B-D-B-A-F#-A ostinato, the band reminiscent of Simple Minds and Split Enz. Who Can Say’s introduction owes something to Joy Division’s single Transmission with its single quaver E-F#’s in low guitar. Do You Remember, again is derived from new wave influences with its introductory instrumental hook-line and Scarlet Field’s treated guitars developing into bass E-F#-D-A which is The Sound re-invented.

Muse – The Resistance

Forming in 1994, with vocalist/guitarist/keyboardist Matt Bellamy as the focus, Muse’s first album demonstrates the unmistakable influence of Radiohead. However, it was Resistance which brought Muse into the forefront of public consciousness, with some likening their musical concerns as progressive rock, hard rock and indie combined. The influence of Jeff Buckley is paramount. From the opening Uprising, with its synth D bass octaves and memorable synth instrumental hook-line, reinforced with accented fourth beat guitar bends, the boogie rhythm provides the music with great uplift. An anthem for establishment resistance and combatting mid-control and it as though Bellamy and co are red-pilled from the beginning. The slow Resistance and its sustained synth opening, gradually goes up-tempo, reminiscent of Ultravox yet with Thom Yorke-like vocals. United States Of Eurasia introductory piano and strings slow the tempo, bears the influence of a simple hymn and developing extrovertly like Queen. The final three-part Exogenesis; Symphony, points to Muse’s preoccupations with prog rock-like conceptual concerns, synth arpeggios and grand style. Pt.2 of the Symphony opens with virtuoso piano, while Pt.3’s Redemption has Rachmaninov/ Beethoven-like features developing into a grand 6/8 lilt.

Water On Stone – Overview

Set against 2009’s fashionable contemporary music scene, Colin Vearncombe’s Water On Stone reveals a very different story set in an idiomatic musical landscape. In this sense, the sleeve-notes of Water On Stone are somewhat revealing:

‘We know what happens to hope. It gets tested. These songs examine that hope and the outrageous fortunes upon which it is flung, as the sea against the rocks, like water on stone. These are songs of love and loss, betrayal and forgiveness, anger and sorrow – yet, above all, hope… Poignant to all who have loved and lost and found resolution, these songs hold a mirror to our adult lives.’ [3]Ibid. Note 1.

The notes are set on a Vearncombe painting of a stormy sea. 

Producer, Andy Patterson, remembers: ‘’It was an interesting period that began when Colin set up a studio in Ireland. I went to help set it up, ended up running a few inaugural sessions, and then Colin asked me if I’d be interested in coming back. He’d recorded a load of songs with who he called the ‘A-team’ – Simon Bradley, Simon Edwards, Callum MacColl – and we had multi-tracks for those sessions. Interestingly, we just had a batch of songs. It was later they were split into two albums.’ [4]Email 1 from Andy Patterson, 6.11.23.

Songs 

There are eight songs included on the album. The image of water occurs in several, perhaps suggesting that a concept lies at the heart of the album:

Diagram 1 (titles)

  1. Tonight We Cross The River
  2. California
  3. Walk On Frozen Water
  4. Tomorrow Is Another Night
  5. I Hate You (Don’t Leave)
  6. Stormy Water
  7. What Makes A Fool
  8. Grievous Angel

As the sleeve-notes suggest, the lyrics explore turbulent emotional and psychological states:

Diagram 2 (themes)

  1. Tonight We Cross The River – transition;
  2. California – distant hope;
  3. Walk On Frozen Water – dreams of a better place;
  4. Tomorrow Is Another Night – jealousy;
  5. I Hate You (Don’t Leave) – the scars of conflict;
  6. Stormy Waters – infidelity;
  7. What Makes A Fool – foolishness in relationships;
  8. Grievous Angel – longing and reflection.

Several musicians on Water On Stone had made appearances on Vearncombe’s previous work:

Diagram 3 (personnel)

Tonight We Cross The River (Vearncombe)

Colin Vearncombe – vocals and guitar; Calum MacColl – guitars; Gareth Forsyth – guitars; Darren McCarthy – double-bass; Rob Stringer – piano; Andy Patterson – strings and organ; Camilla Griehsel – backing vocals

California (Vearncombe)

Colin Vearncombe – vocal and guitar; Calum MacColl – guitar; Simon Edwards – bass; Liam Bradley – drums

Walk On Frozen Water (Colin Vearncombe/Graham Henderson)

Colin Vearncombe – vocals and dobro; Calum MacColl – guitars; Edgar Jones and Simon Edwards – basses; Liam Bradley – drums and percussion; Rob Stringer – piano; Maurice Seezer – piano accordion; Marja Gaynor – cello; Andy Patterson – strings; Colin Vearncombe, Camilla Griehsel, Fergus O’Farrell– backing vocals

Tomorrow Is Another Night (Vearncombe)

Colin Vearncombe – vocal and guitar; Calum MacColl – guitars; Simon Edwards – bass; Liam Bradley – drums and percussion; AP – additional percussion; Maurice Seezer – accordion; Paul Tiernan – mandola and backing vocal; Fergus O’Farrell, Camilla Griehsel, Andy Patterson – backing vocal 

I Hate You (Don’t Leave) – (Vearncombe/Calum MacColl)

Colin Vearncombe – vocals, dobro, cajon and shakers; Calum MacColl – guitars; Simon Edwards – bass; Liam Bradley – drums, percussion and backing vocal; Andy Patterson – tambourine

Stormy Waters (Vearncombe)

Colin Vearncombe – vocal and guitar; Calum MacColl – guitars; Simon Edwards – bass; Liam Bradley – drums and percussion 

What Makes A Fool (Vearncombe)

Colin Vearncombe – vocal and guitar; Calum MacColl – guitars; Simon Edwards – bass; Liam Bradley – drums and percussion; Bertrand Galen – cello; Marja Gaynor – violin; Maurice Seezer – piano

Grievous Angel (Vearncombe)

Colin Vearncombe – vocal and piano; strings and mellotron – Andy Patterson

Produced by Colin Vearncombe and Andy Patterson

Recorded by Dan Hulme, David Wrench and Andy Patterson

Mixed by Rafe McKenna and Andy Patterson

Diagram 4 (harmony)

  1. Tonight We Cross The River – G major;
  2. California – E modal minor;
  3. Walk On Frozen Water – E minor;
  4. Tomorrow Is Another Night – E minor;
  5. I Hate You (Don’t Leave) – E minor;
  6. Stormy Waters – E minor;
  7. What Makes A Fool – G major;
  8. Grievous Angel – F# major

Harmonically speaking, this is Vearncombe’s most radical album so far. Five of the eight songs are in E modal minor (recalling the largely E minor mode structure of The Comsat Angels’ Sleep No More). For Vearncombe, the minor mode symbolises darkness heard first on Wonderful Life and Comedy. However, there is a glimmer of light with the G major of the opening Tonight We Cross The River and the penultimate What Makes A Fool. If that was the end of the story then all would be well, but the dip down to F# major for the finale, Grievous Angel, conveys a kind of drooping lament, certainly in keeping with the memory-centred subject of the song suggesting that hope lies somewhere up ahead.

Diagram 5 (tempi)

Tonight We Cross The River – crotchet bpm = 72c;

California – crotchet bpm = 84c;

Walk On Frozen Water – crotchet bpm = 80c;

Tomorrow Is Another Night – crotchet bpm = 84c (quaver = 168);

I Hate You (Don’t Leave) – crotchet bpm = 88c;

Stormy Waters – crotchet bpm = 112c;

What Makes A Fool – crotchet bpm = 60c;

Grievous Angel – variable/add.lib.

In a way, the tempi match the harmonic structure, with five of the eight songs showing relative stability ranging between crotchet bpm = 72 to crotchet bpm = 88c. Towards the end there is an increase to crotchet bpm = 112 with Stormy Waters, followed by a dip to the crotchet bpm = 60 of What Makes A Fool and, then, further down to ad. lib with Grievous Angel at the end. The metres are all 4/4 and felt as emotional stasis; depression, even. As Calum MacColl notes, ‘Colin wasn’t in his happy place at that time.’ [5]Email from Calum MacColl, 3.11.23.

The Given – Overview

Certainly less cryptic than Water On Stone, the eight songs of The Given possibly suggest Colin Vearncombe revealing the reverse side of the former. Releasing the album as a give-away might also suggest a dual meaning in the title. 

Songs

The eight songs are:

Diagram 6 (titles)

  1. Naked
  2. Blondes
  3. Chapter And Verse
  4. Breathing Underwater
  5. John Lee Scared
  6. Beneath The Radar
  7. No Second Chances
  8. Misbegotten Child

Contributing musicians on The Given first featured on Water On Stone, suggesting that all sixteen songs were recorded during the same period:

Diagram 7 (personnel)

Colin Vearncombe – vocals and guitar; Callum MacColl – guitars; Simon and Edgar Jones – bass; Liam Bradley and Grenville Harrop – drums and percussion; Maurice Seezer – piano and accordion; Bertrand Galen and Rob Stringer – strings; Paul Tiernan – mandola; Rob Stringer – electric piano; Simon Edwards – marimboula; Camilla Griehsel, Fergus O’Farrell, Andy Paterson – backing vocals; Andy Patterson – organ, harmonica

All songs by Colin Vearncombe. Produced by Colin Vearncombe and Andy Patterson. Engineered by Andy Patterson, David Wrench, Dan Hulme and David Williams. Mixed by Andy Patterson and Rafe McKenna. Photography by Jason Lee. Design by Steve Baker. Production, Karen Rainford.

The lyrics convey the thrill and trepidation of first love:

Diagram 8 (themes)

  1. Naked – exposure;
  2. Blondes – famous and not-so-famous blondes;
  3. Chapter And Verse – first meeting;
  4. Breathing Underwater – invisibility metaphor;
  5. John Lee Scared – fear;
  6. Beneath The Radar – invisibility revisited;
  7. No Second Chances – opening the heart;
  8. Misbegotten Child – longing

The harmonic structure is revealing:

Diagram 9 (harmony)

  1. Naked – G major;
  2. Blondes – A major;
  3. Chapter And Verse – A major;
  4. Breathing Underwater – G major;
  5. John Lee Scared – C major;
  6. Beneath The Radar – C major;
  7. No Second Chances – E minor;
  8. Misbegotten Child – G major

Here, seven of the eight songs are in major modes, with only one in the minor. This suggests The Given is the reverse side of a wholeness which may only be revealed on close listening to both albums. Clearly, G major (I) is the album’s ‘home’ key-mode with II (A major), IV (C major) and vi (E minor) visited en-route. 

The tempi and metres of The Given relate to the harmonic optimism;

Diagram 10 (tempi)

Naked – crotchet bpm = 96 (4/4);

Blondes – quaver bpm = 152 (6/8);

Chapter And Verse – crotchet bpm = 126 (4/4);

Breathing Underwater – crotchet bpm = 120 (4/4);

John Lee Scared – crotchet = 116 (4/4);

Beneath The Radar – crotchet = 80 (4/4);

No Second Chances – crotchet = 120 (4/4);

Misbegotten Child – crotchet = 168 (4/4)

Mainly in 4/4 there is one exception: Blondes is in 6/8 and, unlike Water On Stone, the tempi are generally fast. Altogether, this is a more up-tempo set of songs, perhaps suggesting that both albums when viewed as a double album, might form a concept: a kind of Songs of Innocence and Experience.

Individual Songs

Water On Stone

Tonight We Cross The River

Tonight We Cross The River kicks-off with a medium-paced tempo (crotchet bpm = 72) and bright G major modality, with Vearncombe’s guitar introduction (G-Em-D-G) launching into the first verse (WoS Ex. 1) . The melody outlines a G major arpeggio, undergirded by G, its constant return reflecting the words, ‘…and still be where you are…’. Following the post-verse, the chorus vocal is supported by Camilla Griehsel’s harmony vocal, but with Vearncombe’s main vocal foregrounded (WoS Ex. 2) . The double-pas lends the song strength and authenticity. 

A brief pause anticipates verse two’s introduction, now accompanied by Calum MacColl’s ambient slide-guitar, piano and double-bass. It is shorter with the chorus coming sooner than before (2:08). Sustained strings colour the texture and a double-bass dominated Middle8 has touches of the strings and high acoustic guitar. All this prepares the second half of the Middle8 (WoS Ex. 3) , reminiscent of one of Tom Waits’ acoustic guitar-led songs, though transformed into Vearncombe’s own musical voice.

The chorus completes the song with the words, ‘…the river…’, extended at the end and the double-bass bringing it all to an end with a cadence on G. The strong melodic feature is unified by a falling quaver step-motif (WoS Ex. 4) .

California

The song begins the ‘suite in E minor’ string of songs, triggering the darkness at the heart of the album. It begins with a chugging electric guitar (WoS Ex. 5) . Minor 3rds (E-G) on guitar forge a connection to the blues, and an occasional attacked tom-tom (0:07) and a solitary A to B natural in the high guitar (0:10), followed by an extension of the same by sequence recalls Marc Ribot’s work in the context of Tom Waits (WoS Ex. 6)

Verse one’s vocals are sung in a low-tessitura (WoS Ex. 7) , with the melodic line formed from arch-like phrases which then ascend to A minor. The memorable chorus follows (WoS Ex. 8) , with a soft tom-tom-led rhythm and bass tread, while E-bow guitar glides over the top to create an arid desert atmosphere with a wide, flat horizon. 

Verse two repeats the strophic structure, but now contracted. It all leads back full-circle into the introductory material with an ever-present rattle-snake hum. Though all in E minor, there are occasional shifts to C (VI) with a single ride-cymbal marking every beat of the bar at the very end. No elaboration here for the dryness of the song. At the heart lies emptiness, devoid of life.

Walk On Frozen Water

Vearncombe’s fragile picked dobro begins (WoS Ex. 9) accompanied by backing-vocals and mellotron, the sustained B natural of the latter gradually emerging with bass marking the rhythm (WoS Ex. 10) . Piano, bass, light drumming and ambience form the accompaniment, with bright guitar occasionally bringing light into the proceedings. 

Vearncombe’s voice enters for the first verse (WoS Ex. 11) and the feel is European although the electric guitar is pure Marc Ribot, transporting the original into Tom Waits-like territory. Here, then, is a backward glance to Vearncombe’s second album, Comedy. The chorus is sumptuous (WoS Ex. 12) with accordion and strings taking a listener on a journey along the sun-filled streets of some European city.

However, the song remains a study in emotional conflict, a concretisation of the unconscious in sonic terms. It ends as it began, with picked dobro, creating a structural frame. 

Tomorrow Is Another Night

The song picks up speed (crotchet bpm = 84 [quaver = 168]) with its memorable chorus but with an unmistakable connection to what came before and continuing the suite of songs in E minor. Paul Tiernan’s mandola ends the song with high muted notes. 

I Hate You (Don’t Leave) 

This recalls Tom Waits with its low vocal tessitura and snarling ‘I hate you!’ (1:11ff.), low sustained distorted guitar and limited harmonic palette (Em-Am-Bm) together with the Robot-like electric guitar. 

Stormy Waters 

The song continues the E minor suite yet now up-tempo (crotchet bpm = 112) and dominated by angry, fierce guitars beginning with Jaws-like with single guitar and bass D-E natural quaver pitch oscillations. MacColl’s guitar confuses the rhythm somewhat (WoS Ex. 13) . With the weight of the full band added to the texture (0:11ff.), Vearncombe’s guitar further conveys a tango (0:13ff.) (WoS Ex. 14)

The verse melody recalls the quaver step motif heard in Tonight We Cross The River (WoS Ex. 15) . With the end of verse extended and leading directly into the chorus (0:53), it only consolidates the feeling of intense fury (WoS Ex. 16)

Verse two continues the strophic structure and the rhythmically charged Middle8 (2:21) has further raging solo guitar. The following chorus is punctuated by new elements such as a sudden textural drop-down (2:45). It all ends with a D#-E oscillation in the solo guitar.

What Makes A Fool

And then, the atmosphere clears with this Tom Waits-like song and the listener is treated to E minor’s relative major, G, returning to the relative calm of the opening song. Here, too, is a slower tempo (crotchet bpm = 60). The coda’s lush harmony vocals over solo piano takes the song into a far horizon where, maybe, lies hope.

Grievous Angel

Grievous Angel closes the album. Beginning – as it ends – with the sound of the sea, it recalls the background cover-art. Vearncombe’s piano starts as ad.lib with a tide-like ebb and flow, again recalling the quaver step motif of Tonight We Cross The River (WoS Ex. 17) . The vocal of the verse remembers Vearncombe’s parents’ wedding (WoS Ex. 18) . and there is a dramatic and poignant drop to E9 (0:35) on the word ‘English’. The emotional chorus follows (WoS Ex. 19) and distant wedding bells are heard far away in the sonic field (1:16ff.) 

Verse two’s introduction (1:29ff.) is bathed in sustained strings continuing into verse two. Recalling Tom Waits’ Kentucky Avenue from Blue Valentine, Grievous Angel has a similar emotional impact, with a nod towards Gram Parsons’ Grievous Angel. It also takes Vearncombe to a place before his own time which can only be imagined, transporting him from his own dark valley. 

The final verse (3:10ff.) initially, exposes the arrangement yet only to disappear. In the chorus it does well-up again but remaining tastefully understated. The coda harmony cranks-up the emotional tension even more, with a descending series of harmonic regions – E9 (4:20); C# (4:26); G maj7 (4:30) – and finally cadencing on the Tonic F# major (4:37). The impact of the song is overwhelming.

The Given 

Naked 

A medium-paced song set at crotchet bpm = 96, Naked kicks-off The Given, defined by its bright G major mode, with a doted-crotchet/quaver minim bass line setting the pulse (TG Ex. 1) . Verse one’s melody has a descending scale, followed by an ascent back to G, with the quaver step motif creating unity between the two albums (TG Ex. 2) . Vearncombe proclaims he is ‘…warmer in the places that used to be so cold’ with the chorus introducing the element of exposure (TG Ex. 3) . The chorus introduces the rhythmic weight of the band.

Verse two has high strings, repeating the strophic structure with twice repeated chorus. The Middle8 deals with change and the chorus is hammered-home four times. Decidedly US in feel, the song’s wide textures are at the centre of the song.

Blondes

The 6/8 swing of Blondes includes simple arpeggiated A-Asus-F#m-D-F#m-E-D-A harmonic underlay. Mainly dealing with roads, the chorus lists ‘Jack and Jackie/Brigitte and Marilyn’ clearly referring to the Kennedys, Bardot and Monroe and how the power of blondes rule the world. 

The verse is texturally thin with prominent bass, occasional guitar features and a Middle8 of organ sustains and loud guitar. The song closes on a high sustained C# in the guitar.

Chapter And Verse

This song has a distinctly Eagles feel especially with the Amaj7-D/A introduction. Medium paced (crotchet bpm = 126), verse one deals with the meeting of musician and fan and their subsequent relationship (TG Ex. 4) . MacColl’s guitar adds a syncopated rhythm bringing the music to life, with electric piano in the middle-ground. Again, the harmony is straightforward: Amaj7-D/A-F#m-D-Bm-D-F#m. 

The chorus has the Vearncombe fingerprint, with a falling melodic line of a 6th which arches upwards back to the Tonic for the second half of the first phrase (TG-Ex-5) . The subject of freedom and its grim realities are outlined:

Try living as a box-car gypsy,
Try sleeping in the dirt.
Wake thinking that you can’t stand up straight
Spend a lifetime thinking you’re cursed.
Try living with the low-rent crazies
Dealing with the worst.
And the you’re dancing for the dust-bowl crazies
Start drinking somebody gets hurt.
You write the prayer book:
Chapter and Verse.

The song has a strophic structure with verses and choruses with nostalgia and retribution surfacing during the final verse. A simple and memorable song, full of dry reality.

Breathing Underwater

This rocking song has a Dire Straits-like dirty, distorted texture. It is as harmonically straightforward as the others (G-Em-G-Em-C-G), yet the chorus contains a surprising twist with G-Eb major (1:11) taking the music away from its comfort-zone.

The concept of breathing underwater connects to Water On Stone’s ‘water’ concept, although here it is likened to ‘living in the ever-after’. The coda’s strings and electric piano lead to a fade.

John Lee Scared

John Lee Scared is a simple and effective country song (TG-Ex-6) . The chordal underlay allows the words to stand-out, with an empty texture of voice, acoustic guitar, mandola, bass and drums (with brushes). Verse two includes some slight textural differentiation and the pre-verse has harmony vocals. The Middle8 includes MacColl’s spacious acoustic slide sustaining over into verse three.

Beneath The Radar

The simplicity of John Lee Scared is continued here, the opening verse including only voice and acoustic guitar.  The post-verse introduces soft band texture, with dried-out drumming and a striking harmonic shift from C-F minor (1:32) and texturally supported by light strings (1:44). A Middle8 of sustained harmony vocals (2:16ff.) provides textural differentiation.

No Second Chances 

This is pure Tom Waits beginning with Calum MacColl’s Marc Robot-like instrumental hook-line (TG-Ex-7) .  Verse one’s vocals are set in a low tessitura (TG-Ex-8) with a C-B Phrygian harmonic shift occurring as a landmark. 

The chorus defines the title: ‘If you go, you go for good/When you can stay away/There’s no excuse/No second chances/I do what I have to.’ The fine playing from the band provides the perfect backdrop for Vearncombe.

Misbegotten Child 

The final song is a fast rocker in a bright G major, coming back to the Tonic key of the opening song, Naked. Complete with post-chorus ‘oohs’ and easy-on-the-ear harmony, it is the perfect closer.

Water On Stone – a film produced by David Bickley and Colin Vearncombe (Nero DVD15)

The film that accompanied the CD release is striking set of eight short videos, each one set in the context of a journey, with the songs from Water On Stone providing the soundtrack.

The Pit

The opening reveals Colin Vearncombe leaving a house, suitcase in hand. Accompanied by fast moving imagery, he is eventually seen standing on coastal rocks gazing out to sea. The song Stormy Waters adds dramatic impact.

The Machine

Vearncombe is seen here exploring ancient Irish ruins, accompanied by the soundtrack of California. It includes imagery of rain, streams and a turbulent ocean.

The River

Featuring the music of Tonight We Cross The River, and recalling imagery from The Pit, water is the central image. Vearncombe is seen sleeping with suitcase as pillow.

The Trial

Here, we see Vearncombe walking through corridors and up and down dusty stairways, suitcase in hand with Walk On Frozen Water providing the soundtrack.

The Underworld

With scenes of underground passages and hands, Vearncombe is again seen standing on coastal rocks battered by high winds and sea-spray. The video is characterised by conflicting, fast moving imagery.

The Awakening

What Makes A Fool is featured as a backdrop for Vearncombe sleeping on rocky places and station platforms, with suitcase as pillow. An unknown female figure, seen previously, re-appears.

Journey Back

Featuring the music of Tomorrow Is Another Night, Vearncombe is followed making the return journey.

Loss

Closing with Grievous Angel, images of water, the moon, ancient ruins, along with the unknown female – now floating in water recalling Millais’ Ophelia – reappear. The feeling is one of overwhelming nostalgia and longing for something lost.

Coda

It goes without saying that Colin Vearncombe was going through some kind of trauma at the time of recording Water On Stone and The Given. On Between Two Churches there are hints of something slightly amiss, for example Same Mistake Twice. In Water On Stone it is unmistakable, Vearncombe sometimes slipping back into his distant past and recalling Comedy; perhaps an allusion to a comedy of errors, even?

Both albums suggest a concept within a concept. Water On Stone depicts the turbulence of an angry sea crashing against the rocks, a familiar scene in coastal regions of Ireland, where the rage of the both the Atlantic Ocean and the Irish Sea surround the island. As such it seems that Vearncombe’s songs correspond to entries in a personal sonic diary, in which he catalogues both inner and outer emotional states. He was no mere dedicated follower of fashion. That side had disappeared years before, transforming his musical output and something that consumers of mass pop music would miss altogether. This is perhaps the main thrust of the Vearncombe output: epigrammatic vignettes of a life suspended between the push and pull of the opposites.

C.G. Jung said that to find oneself in a situation where there is no way out or there is no solution puts ego consciousness to the wall, knocking out its superiority. It makes someone realise that whatever one does is wrong. But, if one is ethical enough to suffer to one’s core then the Self manifests. A conflict situation forces someone to rely on an act of God, with soul and spirit (anima or animus) as guides. One thinks of Dante and Beatrice. The only way to paradise is first through hell.

Vearncombe said himself, ‘Writing is simply addressing that it is to be alive. It’s become a more intense, a deeper expression the older I get because the questions get bigger’. [6]Water on Stone – mini-documentary. Alchemy Electronic Arts, 2020. Produced by David Bickley. He says of Water On Stone, ‘This record is a bit perplexing. The further I get from the point there I’ve finished it the more it feels like I wrote my own future, and I really wouldn’t recommend that.’ [7]Ibid. The final word comes from Calum MacColl: ‘A lot of the songs are autobiographical. They’re about him.’ [8]Ibid. Note 5.

Appendix – Remembering the The Given/Water On Stone sessions by Andy Patterson

Producer, Andy Patterson, remembers his time working with Colin Vearncombe.

The Given 

Naked  

I played guitar on this. Colin had this great 70s Telecaster which was played through a little Fender valve amp. String arrangements were also by me. I worked hard on making the samples sound like a real orchestra. Colin was a big Scott Walker fan and we were going for that sound I think. Backing-vocals were provided by Colin, Camila and Fergus. A lot of the work had already been done, but we also got Mo Seezer to do some Nicky Hopkins style piano. As I mixed it, I made sure we left the sound of the drummer putting his sticks down at the end, which I think adds a great touch.

Blondes 

A lot of this was already on tape, but we added backing-vocals and re-did the lead vocals. Colin had bought a Telefunken U47, which sounded amazing. We also added real cello and violin. I put a Hammond on in the solo section. Whereas I mixed some of the tracks on the album, this one was mixed by Rafe McKenna

Chapter and Verse

Rafe mixed this and we re-did the lead vocals with the instrumental afterwards. I think I put some keyboards on this. There are string samples again with backing-vocals by Colin, Camilla and Fergus. 

Paul Tiernan put some Mandola on, which really added something. He did a few tracks including Tomorrow Is Another Night on Water on Stone. 

Breathing Underwater

Another one I added strings to like Naked along with glockenspiel. I also added Hammond and backing-vocals.

John Lee Scared 

This is pretty much as it came off the files from the UK sessions, I think with a replaced lead vocal. We did add some backing-vocals and just as we get into the solo you can hear someone hitting the spacebar (I think me). Colin liked it so we kept it. 

Beneath the Radar

Colin had a lovely upright Yamaha piano which I played on this. A part I’m very pleased with, the way it works against the main rhythm of the track. I also did the backing-vocals for the solo section as well as putting some strings on. 

No Second Chances

Triple tracked backing-vocals, Colin and I singing around one mic. We found the third one really made it work. Strings by me. I have a feeling I mixed this one. Colin added the Spanish guitar and the percussion – finger cymbals. Harmonica at the end is also me. I used to bring a box of bits with me when I travelled to Ireland for the sessions. I am really pleased and proud of the arrangement on this one. 

Misbegotten Child

Colin would often just leave me in the studio to work while he got on with any domestic chores, coming back to see how I got on with things. The backing-vocals in the final chorus of this being one of the examples. It is triple tracked of each harmony, I think. I am also the second voice on the choruses.

Water on Stone

Tonight We Cross the River 

This was actually partly recorded in Colin’s kitchen. I took a couple of mics over one evening with a Digidesign MBox Colin had and recorded a few takes to my laptop. The noise you can hear early on is Camilla putting a pen down on the kitchen table. It was impossible to remove, so we left it in. Darren McCarthy added double bass, including the amazing solo. Gareth Forsythe added some extra acoustic. We also used some of the guitar Calum had put on the original version during the UK sessions (the washing machine effect he called it).  

California

After the first few sessions I did with Colin in Ireland he went to a residential studio in East Anglia to record some extra bits, and this was one of them. Simon Edwards plays bass harmonica, I think. A very interesting soundscape and great sounding record. We didn’t do much other than vocals and a few cymbal rolls. 

Walk on Frozen Water

We did a lot of work on this during that early session after we built the studio. It was then mixed by Rafe, and we then added the guitar and vocals intro. He played this a lot faster when he played it live on his last few tours. Mo Seezer on piano and accordion, I think. Marja Gaynor on violin. 

Tomorrow is Another Night

Later the subject of a remix by David Bickley to inject some energy into it. Featured mandola from Paul Tiernan. Backing-vocals from the trinity of Colin, Camila and Ferg. The backing vocal in the bridge is me, as is the harmonica solo and strings at this point. We dropped out the bass for the solo section. Again, an interesting soundscape, which I was and remain very pleased and proud of. 

I Hate You (Don’t Leave) 

Another track recorded in East Anglia, I think. We did vocals. Backing-vocals are Calum and Liam Bradley. 

Stormy Waters

This has some interesting synth parts I conjured up from a preset called ‘Marble rolling’ or similar in a synth in Apple Logic Pro. That’s the rattling at the top. Some backing-vocals from me as well as Colin including the wailing in the choruses. Claps from both of us as well in the guitar solo. 

What Makes a Fool 

Another favourite of mine for the way we created it and added strings and choir vocals. 

Grievous Angel

Colin sang and played this in one take, recorded at his upright Yamaha piano. I then added the string arrangement and the sound fx (including the rain) which mostly came from a Mellotron sample library I had. Rafe mixed this and, in the process, removed a breath that Col did right at the end of the piano take as he took his hands off the piano, which I had left in on purpose and miss every time as a result. It was a release at the end of the song.

The Process

I first met Colin at the end of a long arduous journey. I was working for Ian Silvester at the time, on and off – freelance as an operations tech – building Pro Tools systems and supporting them. We’d been planning this trip over to Ireland to install this studio and time and time again it had been rearranged. It was the day of the sailing, so as we arrived at Rosslare Harbour and by the time we made it to Cork it was getting dark. The Satnav wasn’t really playing ball, so we used the signposts to try and navigate our way to Colin’s home. 

The next few days were spent setting up the equipment in the new building, and then Colin gave us some DVDs which were Pro Tools transfers of the latest tape-based sessions he’d completed at Ape Studios and Bryn Derwen (with David Wrench, I believe). The studio was based around an Audient console, which I loved working on. There was a RADAR as a multitrack, which came up on the first 24 faders of the 36-channel desk. There was also a Pro Tools Mix24 system, with 888|24 interfaces, which in 2008 were starting to get a bit beyond dated, but the AES outputs were connected to the RADAR, so we could put the RADAR in input mode and on digital input, and the Pro Tools would come up on the first 24 faders of the desk for mixing. The idea was that we would record to Radar, then send things to Tools to edit and back to Radar to mix. Once things got into Pro Tools, they never seemed to come back out. Later on we added a couple of plates which lived in a shed outside, but outboard effects in the early days were a few SPX90 units with shared PSU, a 1176, a DBX 160, a Drawmer gate and a GML mic-pre. There was also an Apogee A to D convertor with Mic Pre that we used for printing the analogue mixes back into Pro Tools – either the Mix rig or onto my laptop via a Digidesign MBox 2. Plugins were very basic but serviceable. We were also testing a few microphones. One mic that we tested (maybe this week, or maybe later) was a Telefunken U47, which needless to say, Colin fell in love with straight away.

I got to know Colin quite well over those few days, and once the studio was set up, we decided we might run a test session, over-dubbing on the sessions from Ape and Bryn Derwen. Colin invited over singer songwriter Fergus O’Farrell (for whom there is also not enough space to write about right now), multi-talented musician Mo Seezer, and friend and local Pauline Cotter. To complete the lineup there was Bertrand Galen on cello and Marja Gaynor on fiddle and of course Camilla was around as well. We started with some strings and piano on ‘What Makes a Fool’ which ended up on the Water On Stone album, and then a very special thing happened. Everyone assembled by the main doors to the studio, and Colin’s kids came and joined us to sing the ‘aahs’ at the end of the song. It’s not obvious to anyone listening, but Ian drove the Pro Tools while I ran across to join in along with Colin’s family. Hearing it takes me back to that moment, and the cloudy smokey studio, with a newly invigorated Colin at this new space he had available to create in.

We finished the setup, and over a meal which Colin had cooked for us (he taught me a lot of things about cooking over the years – another of his passions) he asked if I might be interested in coming back sometime to work with him some more on the tracks. I, of course, couldn’t say yes quickly enough.

I have so many fond memories of my times working with Colin and the rest of the family. [9]Email 2 from Andy Patterson, 6.11.23.

Author: Andrew Keeling     © 2024 Nero Schwarz Music Limited

To download a PDF version click here.

Footnotes

Footnotes
1Sleeve-notes to Water On Stone. Nero Schwarz, 2009.
2Email from Colin Vearncombe management, 5.09.23.
3Ibid. Note 1.
4Email 1 from Andy Patterson, 6.11.23.
5Email from Calum MacColl, 3.11.23.
6Water on Stone – mini-documentary. Alchemy Electronic Arts, 2020. Produced by David Bickley.
7Ibid.
8Ibid. Note 5.
9Email 2 from Andy Patterson, 6.11.23.

One comment on “Water on Stone & The Given”

Thank you for sharing, an insightful read – even to those of us that just love the music (as opposed to knowing about the process, having had to look up e.g. Telefunken and Digidesign, as examples :-)

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