Janus Faces: review of Greater Vision, Faces

My review of Greater Vision’s Faces is now up, at long long long long last. I had every good intention of posting it before I saw them at a Real Evangelism conference this evening. But, alas, that was not to be. Anyway, in addition to the review, I’ve posted my thoughts on the Real Evangelism appearance below. One quick note about these live mini-reviews. I’m starting to make belatedly good on my new year’s resolution to attend more live sg. Between work and sloth I’ve managed to miss more than I’d like of local concerts. So I’m going to try to start to report back from the front lines when I can. Tonight is GV, as I’ve said. Friday, will be the Anchormen. Just so happens this week is a good one around here. I’ll try to use a version of the template you see below, as a kind of empirical gauge, if you will.

Greater Vision
Daywind 2004

posted February 16, 2005

So here is Faces: a project styled as a tribute to the many unknown tributaries in Christ’s kingdom:

All of us have faces in our memories that we cherish. Faces of people who had a major influence on our lives and caused us to want to have a personal relationship with Christ. Faces with names that the world will never know, but whose lives are still touching every person who listens to this recording because of the lasting impression they made on our lives. (from the liner notes)

For a spiritual epic of such generously sketched proportions, Lari Goss (and his protégé and business partner Wayne Haun) is your guy. The association of Goss with greatness - both his own proven greatness (say, the Cathedrals High and Lifted Up and Symphony of Praise, for representative samples) and the greatness of the people he’s worked with - is a given in gospel music. Indeed, Goss the Legend is approaching the status of mythic lore. Groups put Lari Goss’s name in promotional material, sometimes ahead of their own. Solo projects with Goss as producer are treated as duets. Working with Goss so excited the Nelons, they started using words like IMPACTFUL! The reliability of Goss and Haun’s magnificent sounds has come to create almost unmanageable expectations from projects that join Goss-Haun production expertise with major talent, like Gerald Wolfe and Greater Vision. And alas, Faces (especially when considered in the context of the Nelons’ Goss-produced Light of Home) makes me wonder if groups aren’t letting Lari carry important parts of the creative load that rightfully belong to artists themselves. Specifically, Faces raises the possibility that Greater Vision is beginning to settle a bit too comfortably into the formula that has brought them to the top of the sg tier: Rodney Griffin songs + a Big Gerald Wolfe Finish = Paydirt.

Listening to the project after a while, I began to have a hard time distinguishing some of the Griffin songs not just from one another, but from other earlier Griffin tunes. Or maybe it was just that they all blurred together over time. Either way, this has to do both with Griffin’s biggest lyrical asset and his most obvious shortcoming as a writer: lyrically Griffin is captivated with the spiritual truths of divine miracles - think, “My Name is Lazarus” and “Just Ask.” And a quick scan through the Faces project finds Griffin returning to the idea at the center of some of his most famous songs up to this point: the miracle of ascension (”Is it Just Me”), the miracle of the blind receiving sight (”I was Blind, But Now I See”), the miracle of miracles in all their forms (”The Other Miracles”). By itself, this preoccupation lends thematic unity to the Griffin songbook, not least of all Griffin because ably creates vivid images and memorable lyrical pictures - a kind of musical story board - that in the best cases remains intact long after the song is over. But these thematically related lyrics often get married to musically similar sounding tunes. The effect can be benumbing: “Just Ask” is a melodic fraternal twin to “Just One More Soul” of four or five years ago. I often find myself humming one tune and then without realizing it end up humming the other. On Faces, “There’s Still Room” shares just a titch too many stylistic idiosyncrasies with “Samaritan’s Heart.” Then there’s the related problem of Griffin’s miraculous lyrics joined to melodically monotonous scores: “I was Blind” has come to taunt me with the ceaseless repetition of its ad-jingle rhyme schemes set to the same two or three maddeningly pedestrian sound bites. “Man” rhymes with “land” rhymes with “stand” rhymes with PLEASE STOP IT! A Lari Goss or a Wayne Haun can make this sound less grating, can put neat little touches on top of the Griffin template, but these producers’ touches can’t shake a project two-thirds full of original Griffin songs out of the Griffin force field.

For die-hard GV fans who came to love them on the basis of their singing Griffin’s songs, this makes for must-have music. For the rest of us, it is somewhat disappointing, not least of all because there are some really fine moments on the project that deserve better complement (and compliment, too, I suppose). Though musically “Faces” the song does nothing overly remarkable for me, it is lyrically and conceptually admirable. The idea behind the song is developed so smartly by the prose vignettes in the liner notes (each guy writes a short narrative about the faces that have touched his life in some lasting spiritual way) and has been so visibly supported by subsequent marketing campaigns that it’s impossible not to admire the fugal way GV and Daywind have tended to the development of the project’s flagship song (sidebar: though the objections some listeners have raised about the song are interesting, I don’t really find the objections terribly persuasive; scriptural or not, so-called lifestyle evangelism is an inevitable byproduct of societies suffused with people of faith who act upon that belief). I hope the promotional strategy is working. Even if “Faces” doesn’t live up musically to the promises of this full-on marketing effort and even if Faces the project doesn’t achieve the creative potential of a Goss-Wolfe-Haun-Griffin tag team line up - and there’s hardly any way the song or the project could live up to these expectations - a few spectacular passages of delightful, powerful music really redeem the project from many, if not all, of its other shortcomings.

Two songs stand out in this regard: “How Much More” is a dead ringer for a Rodney Griffin song, but it actually isn’t. It is the project’s finest up-tempo number and would make a first-rate opening tune for a live set (though I happened to catch thirty minutes of Greater Vision live earlier this evening and they disappointingly opened with … you guessed it … a Griffin tune, and not just any RG number but the dizzyingly disorienting “I was Blind” … indeed, tonight I found myself wishing I was just a touch hard of hearing to boot). “How Much More” is cleanly paced and even-keeled, which I hope you’ll keep in mind for a minute because I want to return to it in a bit. The simple brilliance of this song is in the little instrumental flourishes, the way the piano flits fancifully around Wolfe’s voice in the second verse. The way the ever-over-used Hammond organ here is so tastefully restrained, used for a few well-placed accents to some R&B piano licks in the last chorus. The way the bass harmonically articulates the closing bars to add a feeling of richness, building force around the vocals in lieu of just pushing up the sliders on everything to achieve a big finish. These instrumental felicities imbue the song with the sense of the very-muchness of grace described in the lyrics.

The other song to go back and listen to: “He’d Do It All Again.” This tune is strongest at its middle passages, in which the lyrics, the melody and the arrangement fuse gracefully into a unit of expressive beauty, each part working in effortless concert to enhance the other. It makes you nod in agreement … yes, this is what it is like to be in that place, to experience those states of mind and spirit. The real achievement here is the melodic verisimilitude to the emotional content of the song. Translation: when the vocals sing or talk about “sin,” the song plays with a minor intonation. This sounds more gimmicky than it actually is. But the tune is built around a brilliant little occidental-sounding theme that shades the traditional orchestration in slightly more complex sounds. These tonal colorations are pitch-perfectly appropriate to the song’s lyrical point: undeserving of grace, yet we receive it, and while it redeems it also inevitably heightens the pique of our feelings of unworthiness.

I don’t want to understate how right this song gets it when things are on. But there’s frankly some predictability to the arrangement of “He’d Do it All Again.” Start small, end big. Set up themes with some horns that will get bigger and bolder. Then close big with a classical-style ending. This is reliable and familiar, ok … but it’s also kinda over-the-top by the ending, which is somewhat trite. The song’s lyrics are spiritually sophisticated enough that a more subtle treatment of the final bars would have seemed in order. Instead, we get echoes of that formulaic stuff I talked about earlier. The orchestration is classic Goss/Haun, and it seems to be going for DYNAMIC. They almost hit their mark here in the attempt to create a kind of psycho-spiritual fever-line with the orchestra. But there’s something to be said for the even-keel (see, I told you we’d come back to that). If he’d do it all again, then there’s at least a suggestion of consistency, of divine constancy that transcends the spiritual flux we are in when left to our own devices. So why not use the orchestra to render that idea of a divine covenant - for instance, a slightly swelling string bed whose harmonic structure would have picked up threads of that occidental theme running through the tune, rather than going for the easy Triumphalism of resurrection … all trumpets and majesty, no perseverance or promise of eternal security. That is, there are ways to organize arrangements around themes and melodic ideas (like that bit of occidentalism) that don’t require emotionally one-dimensional conclusions.

Indeed, my ambivalence toward this song - on the one hand it is so powerful, on the other hobbled by formula - plays out in miniature my ambivalent attitude toward the project (which if I were being really clever I might call “Janus Faces”). Faces, like the song “He’d Do It All Again,” could stand to be evened out, unified, made more coherent and less all over the place: there’s a hymn (”It is Well”); a medley (a blood medley no less); a few country tunes, some traditional sg, some big ballads, a few tweener tunes (between one genre and another). And at the same time, there’s a predictable quality to these songs that goes beyond the reliability of Established Talent (which GV certainly is now) and just seems a little too pat in a few too many places. Perhaps great minds - Wolfe, Haun, Goss, Griffin - maybe they do think alike, and maybe in this case that’s the problem.

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