Going Electric Pays Off For Vertical Horizon

Band scored modern-rock hit earlier this year with R.E.M.-influenced "We Are."

After banging around with little success for several years as a Washington,

D.C., acoustic duo, Vertical Horizon singer/guitarist/songwriter Keith

Kane and singer/guitarist Matt Scannell had a hunch that, to achieve a

commercial breakthrough, they'd have to go electric.

They did, and the change paid off. Their major-label debut, Everything

You Want (RCA Records), is a thoroughly accessible collection of

uptempo rockers and anguished love ballads. And the band, now a foursome,

had a modern-rock hit earlier this year with the R.E.M.-influenced "We

Are" (RealAudio

excerpt). But success hasn't come without a struggle.

"It's difficult to write rock songs," Kane said. "They need to have that

noise. [Going electric has] opened up my mind a little bit, [because] it's

rare that I can hear distortion when I write. Even though our style has

changed drastically, we stake everything on songwriting."

Kane, 28, and his musical partner, Scannell, 29, who wrote most of the

songs on the album, wanted help converting their musical ideas into catchy

radio product. So they called on producers Ben Grosse, who has worked with

Filter, and Mark Endert, who engineered Fiona Apple's Tidal.

The duo have come a long way from the days when they bonded at Washington's

Georgetown University. They began playing together in 1992 just "to have

fun and drink beer," the Connecticut-born Kane said, adding that their

repertoire was mostly acoustic covers of songs by artists including

folk-rockers America and '80s new-wave stars Duran Duran.

In the seven years since they hooked up, Vertical Horizon have sold more

than 70,000 of their three independently released albums via sales at

concerts, a home-grown mailing list and drop-offs to local record stores.

"From the beginning, we've always had a grass-roots approach," Kane said.

"Anywhere and everywhere that would take us."

RCA is distributing the band's first two studio albums, There and Back

Again (1992) and Running on Ice (1995), as well as its 1997

live set, Live Stages. The latter was the first LP to feature

drummer Ed Toth and bassist Sean Hurley, both of whom joined the group

in 1996.

"[Everything You Want] includes sappy love ballads and then more

angst-ridden material," Kane said. "There's gonna be at least one song

for every person. So that will help us in the top-40 format."

Typical of Vertical Horizon's more pop-oriented approach on their latest

album are "Best I Ever Had (Grey Sky Morning)" and the title cut, which

conveys advice to a loved one via gentle guitars and a soothing chorus.

But "Everything You Want" (RealAudio

excerpt), the second single from the LP, is getting little airplay

on the modern-rock stations that played "We Are" in June, when the album

was issued.

" 'Everything You Want' is probably the strongest track on the album,"

said Kevin Mannion, music director of "Hot AC" KZON-FM in Phoenix. "If

you dance that line between pop and alternative, it can certainly work

for you. [But] we were alternative-rock until about five months ago, and

I don't know if it's a track for an extreme alternative."

The embrace of harder-edged bands by many of America's alternative-rock

radio stations may be a problem for Vertical Horizon. To increase their

recognition among the modern-rock audience, Vertical Horizon made an

unscheduled appearance at Woodstock '99, where the roster included hard-rock

acts Limp Bizkit and Korn. The band's summer tour has led to fall and

winter gigs opening for such diverse artists as Guster, Jewel, Tori Amos

and Def Leppard.

"[Vertical Horizon] create clever pop and good melodies, [and] their songs

say a little more than [today's popular] vocal groups," said Doug Derryberry,

who, with his partner John Alagia, produced Running on Ice and

Live Stages. Derryberry and Alagia, after working on the Dave

Matthews Band's Remember Two Things (1993), arranged for that group's

drummer, Carter Beauford, to play drums on Running on Ice.

"[Unlike Vertical Horizon], most pop bands today are not really dealing

with emotions that resonate," Derryberry added.

Nevertheless, Vertical Horizon hope to combine their songs' emotional

weight with audience appeal.

"It's great to show up and have a packed house and people singing your

song," Kane said. "It's too hard to make a thousand people dance to two

acoustic guitars."