Greater Vision: My Favorite Place

My Favorite Place
Greater Vision
Daywind 2005

Posted January 11, 2006 7:11 PMThe PR surrounding this project - a bunch of new songs from several different writers! - was clearly meant to suggest that My Favorite Place wasn’t some familiar hangout (like Faces was) but an innovative and new stylistic getaway for Greater Vision (though the rock-formation bench the group is sitting on in the cover at makes it look like a very uncomfortable place above all). And My Favorite Place certainly sounds different. Of course when I say different, I mean an awfully lot like SSQ’s latest project in places. Take “Everyone, Everywhere, Everytime.” Here’s the same easy-listening sound that SSQ sold its soul to on their latest album: wide, smoothie, slurpy harmonic lines balanced against extra white space between phrases and notes that would typically sustain themselves longer. Here’s also the same doo-wop BGVs, the tissue-paper tones, the gentle syncopations, the jazz-lite resolutions.

And then there are the horns … my Gosh, the horns.

On the album’s title track, a straight-ahead countrified gospel tune sounds like it was ambushed by a marauding band of tenor sax players roaming the countryside during the offseason at some Atlantic City hotel bar … oh yeah, and one lone guy with a steel guitar who seems to be taking the place of a pianist who didn’t show up for work the day the studio tracks were laid down. The vocals suffer from a similar lack of focus. Whatever makes GV distinctive vocally - something in the timbre and the mix of voices, the force and vigor with which material is sung - has been extracted from this tune and a few others like it. It’s not that GV has forgotten how to sing like themselves (they do so on bridge of “My Favorite Place” when an old hymn, “At the Cross,” pops up, for instance). But for much of the time they seem to have traded their real voices for a generic breathiness, the same bubble-gum gooeyness that so depersonalized SSQ’s latest project.

The common denominator in both cases is, of course, producer Lari Goss, who I’m beginning to think just rediscovered his Kenny G collection out in the garage. Goss seems to have left behind the sweeping cinematic style he worked in for so long and exchanged it for the menthol cool of smooth-jazz horns and pianos played like xylophones (to get a sense of what this does to the style of gospel music, try this exercise: imagine a tenor sax being played anywhere you hear a piano on “Calvary Answers for Me” or GV’s own “There is a River”). Whatever else this new Gosslite sound is or isn’t, GV’s and SSQ’s latest projects are what Baptist lounge music would sound like.

It’s curious thing to hear - classic Rodney Griffin material getting accessorized with the earrings and patent leather and nail polish and cufflinks of upscale smooth jazz … curious to hear Goss’s attempts, some more successful than others, to make eight typical Rodney Griffin tunes SOUND like they were much fresher and newer and not-so-typically-RG than, on the whole, they actually are (which isn’t to say they aren’t quite good at times).

This is, of course, a smart move strategically. And often it works stylistically. The folk/ bluegrassy/country tune that the group was singing from the stage of the NQC last year, “Paid in Full Through Jesus, Amen” is nauseatingly jingly, the kind of song that embeds itself in your head against all exertions of your will. But of course this will likely make it a solid success, nevermind that (like regular reader RF) my mind instinctively wants to end the song’s chorus with “thank god I’m a country boy!”

“All is Well” is one of my favorite songs from MFP because, unlike too many other numbers on the project, it SOUNDS like GV. The voices are fuller (that is, they are themselves), there’s more breath support behind the singing, the gait is unapologetically opened up and hasn’t been hobbled by horns where a piano and hard driving trap set and bass guitar ought to be (and, thankfully, are here). Yes, I realize the irony (heading toward hypocrisy) of wanting GV to do something different and then praising one of the most traditionally GV-sounding songs on the album as among my favorite. But the extent to which I want to have it both ways takes the measure of how much (and often) the songs on this album mistake twee arrangements or instrumental eclecticism for the more comprehensive reimagination of a group’s style - that thing about a group that is easy to recognize, difficult to define and impossible to imitate.

“Far More” comes closest to succeeding in that reimaginative vein (and I’m not holding against the song the fact that it contains the line “a being that I’d like to know,” a phrase that seems to have been written for Martians). For one thing, I haven’t heard a modulation as unique as the one in this song since First Love’s debut single “What a Day.” I don’t like this one as much as I did First Love’s, but it’s a brilliant bit of musical thinking. What I like most about the song, though, is that it accomplishes what I wish the entire project could have pulled off: retaining Griffin’s signature sound and GV’s signature style (think “Just Ask” or “Just One More Soul” here) while infusing that sound with a renewed sense of stylistic flare (indeed, my complaint about “Just Ask” was that it aped “Just One More Soul” a bit too shamelessly). Here, the song’s success turns on the phrase “All that I longed for,” especially the passing tones sung across those last two words. That’s it …and it’s everything. An enviably efficient way to work, reminding us why we wait in line to hear GV, why we strain over the high set of blue hair in front of us to see them, why the trio doesn’t (or oughtn’t) need any Kenny G imitations to make their stand.

Finally, “Far More” (along with “All is Well”) are among the album’s better examples of the project’s unifying lyrical theme: bringing significance to the everyday life of faith. This has long been a preoccupation of Griffin’s, and/but My Favorite Place might well be described as an extended meditation on the contours of ordinary religious experience, punctuated as it is by glimmers from a spiritual world in which we do not (because we cannot) consistently live. These songs explore what the ongoing human attempt to reach heights of glory, failing yet supported and born on by the glimpses of grace and redemption that are given in the otherwise unilluminating one-thing-and-then-anotherism of regular experience. Mixed in with this kind of reflectiveness, the enormous anthem “I Will Glorify the Lord” (one of the three non-Griffin tunes on the album) gives the album - from a thematic angle - a nice sense of balance and poise (and “I Will Glorify” is a faster-moving number that will sell like gold at those Bailey Smith conference dates GV works).

At times, the project tries to hard. Exhibit A here being “Heaven’s Hero.” Written by Phil Cross (and the second non-Griffin song on the album; the third being a Gaither-impersonating-Gaither number, “We are So Blessed”), the song shamelessly props itself up with the fame of Cross’s big hit, “Champion of Love.” And yes, “Champion” gets predictably reprised in “Heaven’s Hero.” Someone needs to tell Cross that though “Champion” was huge, maybe even cosmic (maybe even it’s transubstantiated itself: the liner notes read: “Heaven’s Hero, featuring Champion of Love”), the bigger the hit, the more carefully its legacy must be tended, lest its performance turn into a kind of parody - or as the case turns out to be here, self-parody.

[Sidebar: And here is probably as a good place as any to say that none of the co-writers on the project have anywhere near the clout or success that Griffin has had (including Cross, I’d wager, who co-writes two songs with Griffin in addition to writing “Heaven’s Hero” himself). The conspicuous disparity between Griffin and the writers he works with here taints all the hype about the project’s variety of writers with the air of gimmickry, a way to pretend the project was full of fresh material when in fact less-successful writers being invited to write with Griffin must rather be like an invitation tell the queen what you think of her new dress.]

Of course Griffin himself turns in a few stinkers all on his own. Namely, “God’s Got a Bigger Thing Going On.” I’m not sure what David Bruce Murray was listening to when he talked about the “excellent writing” the song exhibited. There are many things one could say about the writing on a song whose hooks is “God’s got a bigger thing going on than these little bitty eyes can see.” But excellent isn’t exactly what springs to mind. Instead, one imagines Griffin, struggling through an off-day, trying to pad out the line with an adjective that’s an antonym for BIG. Tiny? No. Smallish? No again. LITTLE BITTY! Yeah, plus it’s insipid and sing-songie. DOUBLE SCORE!

Ok, I’m being ungenerous, but I do wish there was someone around who could tell the emperor when he’s got no clothes. You’d think that job might fall to an A&R director. But though Daywind’s Norman Holland has that title on this project, there’s not terribly many convincing signs that GV got its money’s worth outta him. At least he would have seemed like the guy who shoulda said NO when the idea came up for Griffin to try to carry a MORE THAN FIVE-MINUTE ballad on his own, entirely, without one single back-up or background vocal at all - this on “The Voice I could Not Resist” … aside from the weepy-cry-talk thing that he used most recently in “Faces,” Griffin’s not got enough vocal tricks or force to pull off such a demanding task. It was a good idea, but one that needed Wolfe’s talent to succeed, one that didn’t quite live up to its possibility.

And in the end maybe that’s the take-away truth of the project. Still there are worse things to do than try too hard or go wide of the mark (just as it’s not always possible to get candid advice from your label when you’re the second-biggest grossing artist on the roster). And Greater Vision’s history and prominence deserve a good deal of deference, the benefit of the doubt that the one-off unevenness of MFP’s arrangements and production are the ambient noise of a mighty sound being tuned up before the curtain rises on the next act for Greater Vision.

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