The periodization of music history is nothing new. The British Invasion is a specific period in the ‘60s whose second wave has been fervidly sought out by Britpop enthusiasts for the last 30 years. Some say disco was both born and dead by the end of 1977, although disco has tainted the image of the ‘70s ever since. The ‘80s and New Wave are irrevocably intertwined. The ‘90s have seen such cross-pollination and diversification of genres and styles that attempts to encapsulate the decade into a nostalgic history have been futile so far.
Regardless of the musical form that will ultimately be seen as the hallmark of the ‘90s, one period that will probably be up for consideration is the 1994-1997 moment in pop music when an explosion of AAA-with-an-edge, countrified rock had everyone picking up their acoustic guitars again. Bands like Hootie and the Blowfish, Counting Crows, and the Gin Blossoms are fine exemplars of this brief historical moment.
The most interesting thing about the popularity of Vertical Horizon’s hit single, “Everything You Want,” is that it calls to mind that piece of the recent past in an era when heavy metal’s psychotic cousin, rap-metal, has taken over the pop consciousness. It lends some weight to some current theories about the effects of a life that is entropically getting faster. One idea in this camp is that the interval between event and later nostalgic reflection is shrinking. In other words, while the whole swing revival was sublimated ‘50s nostalgia, Vertical Horizon works in a mode of nostalgia for four years ago. At this rate, by next year kids will be waxing nostalgic for Korn and Kid Rock.
None of this is to discredit Vertical Horizon. Everything You Want is a fine album, well-played and generally listenable. But the fact remains that the moment for such music has already passed. Other really good bands (see 1998’s Athenaeum album) will keep up the tradition and there will always be fans (including myself) who would rather hear something from five years ago than what is currently popular. However, there’s not often much chance for popular success with yesterday’s styles. Vertical Horizon has managed to evade the odds and have a popular song that actually gets played on MTV and AAA radio. That said, I can’t help but listen to Everything You Want and think about how the cold hand of that muse who is responsible for “flash-in-the-pans” has Vertical Horizon by the wrist.
And that’s really lamentable. Obviously there’s some market out there for acoustic rock, even among those under 18, and Vertical Horizon is really a good band. Everything You Want is a good album, not a masterpiece, not enough to cause an acoustic rock revival, but good enough to get some well-deserved airtime.
Perhaps what’s given VH some creds with the kids who still watch MTV is Matt Scannell, the songwriter and singer for the band. With his bald, Billy Corgan-esque head and tight leather pants, he doesn’t look like the type to sing ballads. Maybe he wouldn’t fit in with Korn or ICP, but he’s a step up the style echelon from stringy-haired sensitive types. What will surprise anyone who has only heard “Everything You Want” (the song), is that Scannell seems to have taken the majority of his vocal inspiration from Michael Stipe. This album almost drips in R.E.M. comparisons, at least as channeled through the first incarnation of Live. It’s kind of the middle ground between R.E.M.‘s Monster and Automatic for the People.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the kind of brilliant album that can roll out one single after another. “Everything You Want” is definitely the star song on the album, although if the record company is reading this, you’d be nuts not to release “Shackled” as the next send-up. “Shackled” definitely brings an early Live sound out of the band. Other standout songs on the album include “Finding Me” and the slower “Miracle.”
My major complaint? That Scannell seems to have hit on a formula that works and went with it. Every song on the album has the tinge of sadness that evokes poetic imagery of emotionally disturbed relationships. It’s the kind of album you would listen to after a fight with a boyfriend or girlfriend, but that loses relevance for teens or married couples. Maybe that makes it appropriate college rock, but I really think a little diversity in topics could have alleviated the sense of sameness. And there is such a sense as you listen. It’s easy to get distracted by something else, return your attention to listening, and feel like you picked up exactly where you left off.
On the other hand, the same can be said for a lot of bands in this genre, and it’s not always enough to dismiss a band. Vertical Horizon shouldn’t be dismissed, either. They’re a solid outfit and Scannell’s songs and vocals have enough of that delicate balance between pain and passion that they might manage to stick around and keep defying the odds. While Everything You Want shows that VH has a ways to go before they’ll reach such a genre pinnacle as Toad the Wet Sprocket’s Fear, it also shows that there’s some promise there. Or they’ll go the way of Live, give up their acoustic guitars, shift their music to something more pop-topical, and become part of the Next Big Thing. Anything is possible, and hey, Scannell’s already got the bald head!