Running on Ice
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I don't know how you would define Vertical Horizon musically. The sound that Matt Scannell and Keith Kane make is too acoustic and soft for most contemporary pop rock; their plaintive lyrics suggest a country sentimentality, but without the rollicking fun--no sly steel guitar or soaring fiddle. And while there's a folksy, storytelling aspect that plays over the rhythmic strumming of their guitars, there's a certain polish to the production that keeps the disc from attaining the soul of a Tracy Chapman or Joan Baez recording. But the way in which Vertical Horizon defies easy categorization also accounts in part for what is appealing about this album. The low-key, '70s-style songs are likeable and listenable, occupying that netherworld of popular adult folk previously the near-exclusive province of the likes of James Taylor and Gordon Lightfoot. Their tunes are neither happy nor sad, neither cynical nor optimistic; instead, there's a mood of resignation that's not the product of anger or sudden passion, but of smart reflection--they're a paradox: rational love songs. (A song like "Sunrays and Saturdays," which sounds like you'd expect from its title, pretty much tells you everything you need to know about this duo.) Vertical Horizon might not be forging new ground here, but the place that they revisit--a place free of hype and angst but not feeling--is a welcome one.
Maybe it's an unfair bias, but my tastes tend to run a little more toward the acoustic, where the artist's guitar solos are actual solos rather than mere accompaniments to synthesized background music, and where the lyrics aren't quite so far back in the mix (although, with a voice similar to Richard Marx, it's probably just as well Johnson doesn't overwhelm us with it). Johnson has an obvious gift for complex riffs, but he's too controlled in his playing. The canned backbeat on songs like "All About You" and the title cut seems almost never to vary, giving the CD a sound that is studio-perfect and thus almost completely without a sense of spontaneity. After a while, many of the selections begin to sound alike. The best cut on the album is probably "Song for Lynette," in which Johnson mixes some fine piano work with classical guitar, but it also undercuts Johnson's guitar roots. Johnson is a contemporary of Stevie Ray Vaughan, but although both were born in the same year and have been popular in the Austin music scene, their similarities otherwise end. That doesn't make Venus Isle a bad album--just not a particularly inspired one.
--Arnold Wayne Jones