Overlooked Folk Roots of Vertical Horizon

I'm all for bands evolving their sound, as I like to see groups grow and move in new musical directions. Usually if I'm into the group, I like to see this evolution and can appreciate their broadening scope. Sometimes I prefer this new material, other times I stay with the earlier works that originally drew me to the band. Sometimes it happens backwards as with a band who I started listening to when they broke through to mainstream radio, but who's earlier work I actually prefer over the sound that originally attracted me to them.

I first came to Vertical Horizon when I purchased their 1999 breakthrough album Everything You Want. I liked the album, it fit with my at the time trend towards pop rock and had some pretty good and uplifting songwriting. In fact, at the time I liked that album so much, that I went in search of more music by this group. What I found was three previous albums which completely changed how I saw the band. Now, many years later with many changes in my musical tastes come and gone, I still think that 1999 album is alright... but their earlier work has left a longer impact.

These three albums, There and Back Again (1992), Running on Ice (1995) and Live Stages (1997), showed a very different group than the pop rock outfit of 1999. The first two are true folk and acoustic albums that on first listen reminded me immediately more of James Taylor than their later albums. With often only acoustic guitar as the instrument of focus, (if not the only instrument), these tracks have the same sweet, yet earthy quality that I associate with James Taylor, that kind of working man with a heart of gold feeling with just enough world weariness to make the songs sound authentic and real, without crossing into the Dylan-esque arena. The songwriting is sweet and uplifitng, at times bordering on the sappy, but without losing a sense of realism that makes the more over the top moments go down smoother. Definitely not the same sound as their breakthrough album at all and although there is a similarity in the songwriting, I find these early songs far more compelling.

The real stand out of these three early albums is the Live Stages album. Consisting of a live concert that is almost entirely acoustic, this band takes these early songs farther than just simple folksy tracks and adds a bit more soul and even a little acoustic arena rock feel with the audience really getting involved. "Falling Down", originally on their second release, which is pretty accurate to the original recording but the band has raised the bar just that much really giving it their all with these performance, especially during final chorus that has intertwining vocal lines from the band's two singers with tons of soul and passion. Also a stand out track is the song to follow "On the Sea", from the band's first release. This song features a great acoustic riff and feel, with some heartfelt lyrics loyal to the original, but again the band takes it further, expanding the song just a bit and adding an intensity that gets the audience clapping and singing along and also again, a lot of soul and passion. Along with these two great live renditions the band does an amazing version of "Wash Away", again from their second release. This is one of the few times there is electric guitar featured, with extended leads intertwining with the acoustic rhythm into new melodies, counter melodies, great intertwined lyrical lines, shifting moods/emotions and flourishes that not only make this the entire album/concert's standout (it is the second to last song), but also an extended live renditions that can hold up to some of the best live performances I've ever seen for intensity and sonic impact. At a bit over twelve minutes, it serves as a great concert climax with strong, relatively subtle, but extremely effective guitar work.

Although I like both the band's earlier studio efforts, I prefer these live versions because they're played just like you'd want these songs to be preformed. They have passion and emphasis where the songwriting asks for it.

This live album totally sold me on this band's earlier works... so much in fact, that when I first heard it, I completely stopped listening to their 1999 release.

I have not heard this band's more recent releases in their entirety so I can't say how they compare. I'm sure they're well written and great music, but I definitely prefer these three earlier works.

If you're a fan folksy rock, or folk in the vein of James Taylor, I think you should check out Vertical Horizon's three earliest releases. These three show a great little acoustic band that also puts on a great show with a lot of passion. If you're a fan of the band since their 1999 release, I definitely think you owe it to yourself to take a look at this group's earlier work and see how they started out and their folk roots.

You can purchase these three early albums (personally I recommend the live one) directly from Amazon here: There and Back Again, Running On Ice and Live Stages

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