Greater Vision – “The Only Way”
***Edit – Yes, I am aware that this is not what the album cover looks like.
STREET DATE: July 5th
Recently This preview was released by Greater Vision on youtube, whetting the appetite. We’re a month away, but let’s do this.
I once had an English teacher tell me there is no flawless or perfect research paper. So, the highest grades he gave were 99%. Much in the same vein, I feel that way about music. Why would I want it perfect anyways? Give me the raw, unpredictable, passionate, experiential energy of music. Anyways… I’m not real big on CD reviews, so I probably won’t do many. That market is mostly covered. But as mentioned earlier…let’s do this.
When an album is reviewed, many reviewers may simply rate an album on a 5 point scale, or has been the case in years past. I think it is an efficient way to review an album. But I also think of the many projects that would be deemed as a sure fire “classic”. The category of “classic” is truly only applied or fully realized in hindsight. Sometimes, albums we expect to be these cherished classic albums don’t pan out as such. Sometimes what we don’t’ expect arrives at such an appointed time and the quality is sustained throughout the years. With so much “quartet-turnover”, it can be hard for some projects to find their own niche in the fabric of both the industry and the buyer’s ears, despite their brilliance and near-flawlessness. In the biz, people come and people go. It would be foolish for me to make such a prediction. I could not yet label this project as a “masterpiece”, but no matter what you think on first listen to “The Only Way”, years from now, this album could be a very important model in the face of transition in the Southern Gospel genre, even if it would never make our Top 20.
After twenty years in the industry, it’s reasonable to expect quality music from Greater Vision. It’s also hard for a group that’s been around for so long to continue surpassing expectations and others’ from the standards they have continued to set 10 or more years ago. When you raise the bar so high, so early, it’s hard to continuously duplicate #1 album after #1 album. Greater Vision’s latest effort, “The Only Way” may do just do that. I don’t know if the energy behind this project has anything to do with Allman’s return, but he definitely adds another dimension to the Greater Vision sound. While “Welcome Back” was a collection of previously recorded material (even though half of what was previously recorded was fairly new) to open the door for Allman, the new project releases something completely fresh.
Fresh. I’ve heard grumbles from others, the last few GV projects that “everything has begun to sound the same” or that it has failed to live up to past favorites, “Far Beyond This Place”, Perfect Candidate, or Faces”. Well this recording is in my opinion, and regardless of whether or not the material has been stale, the best overall collection of songs, production, and vocal performances since “Faces”, which of course debuted 7 years ago. And just to be sure, I had to go back and listen to every project released by GV in the last ten years. But we also know that southern gospel fans want to hear familiarity. And this project doesn’t blatantly deter from the style they have crafted for themselves and that so many love and have come to appreciate. The brass instrumentation has been completely stripped for this project. Goss arranges strings for 5 songs, but not an ounce of brass. So if you are a fan of the trumpet blast, find a nice Miles Davis project. But I love it stripped down. I’ve always been a fan of strings. I play “The Cathedral Quartet With Strings” much more than “The Cathedral Quartet With Brass”. And that is one reason, this project stays “fresh” in comparison to other recent material. So, in that realm…if you are a ‘less is more’ person, this is something you want to invest in.
He Didn’t When He Could’ve Passed Me By: Remember what “My Name Is Lazarus” did for GV? Well, this is no Lazarus…but this song is in that type of mold. Maybe a better comparison would be “He’d Still Been God”. The kind of fast, hand-clapping, toe tapping, stand up and sing-a-long (doing so while tying your tongue) type of song that starts the project off right. It has enough familiarity with past, fast – paced hits that GV seem to thrive on. And might I add, this is a hot track. David Johnson pulls out the fiddle on this one and rocks the house. Rodney is a master at mixing biblical story telling with thought provoking concepts, and this is no exception. The question is posed that “Jesus could have passed by” through a scenario of events, ultimately leading to the salvation experience in the last sentence. But He didn’t pass by. Being fully human and fully God, a thought and a reality that has boggled the minds of people throughout the ages, He actually could have. In fact, He didn’t go out to heal everyone that needed healing. He spent His last week with close friends and out of the eye of public ministry. So, what a consolation that God in the flesh made a way when He actually could have passed by our need of desperation and lostness. The 1st verse doesn’t correlate the message as personally as the 2nd verse, but it offers the backdrop, so you’ll know where the 2nd verse is going. Most of southern gospel is about experience, and this won’t fail in that department. Gerald sings the first verse and Chris sings the 2nd verse. Don’t be surprised to see this as a single. And don’t be surprised to see it climb the charts. It has that traditional southern gospel appeal. They probably won’t be putting “Lazarus” back into the grave anytime soon, but this would certainly take the place of some other high kicking’ songs they’ve had on their set list.
Safe Within His Hand: We haven’t seen Chris Allman’s name on a mainline GV release since “The Shepherds Found A Lamb”, which was Jason Waldroup’s first introduction. Now we do. And this is a solid track to pick back up where he left off. It’s a slower number with a country flavor, but without knowing who wrote it when I first heard it, I knew it wasn’t Griffin. While Griffin does a lot of thinking outside the box lyrically, Allman tends to go the other way…thinking outside the box musically. That’s not to say that Griffin can’t create good music, or Allman good lyrics. But their styles compliment one another. It’s a very subtle difference with the case of this particular song, but it’s there and it’s much more clear on the other Allman numbers. This song is a nice bridge for the next song.
No Longer Chained: This song starts with an intro, or rather a sort of “prelude”, not especially common among projects in our genre. This Griffin-penned (and sung) tune may be one of the two most lyrically impacting songs on the entire project. This song traces back to the historical practice of Roman soldiers literally chaining themselves to prisoners. Acts 28 could provide a setting for this scene, and Philippians 1 should at least provide the context of Paul’s joy in his suffering for Christ. Vv. 12-15, “I want you to know brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear”. And as Griffin does so well, he pulls the listener into this story and this setting and paints a beautiful picture of grace in the midst of being both figuratively and literally “in chains for Christ”. Although we don’t know specifics of this scene, it is clear that it happened. There may obviously be more imaginative stories told in songs, but this one tugged at me. It is a testimony of experiential change in a new believer after hearing the testimony of another and how he/she (Paul, in this case) was changed by the Gospel. You may need to hear this a few times before you are hit with the connecting, proverbial punch. This projects consists of some of the best vocal performances by Griffin I’ve heard in recent projects, and this song is no exception, as he delivers the goods. It’s as if he’s inspired by own the account of his own once lost father, rejecting the Gospel offered by his co-worker. Then one day, it hit him. And Jesus Christ has finally became enough for Griffin’s father. Without getting into logistics of whether or not this is radio material (and it is), the intro would obviously be omitted as it is about 32 seconds long. In reality, a large portion of my favorite songs are never sent to radio…so I’m not one to judge on a song’s radio visibility (or listenability). But if I were Daywind, this song would without question be a single.
I Know A Man Who Can: Word on the street is, the vocals on this number was practically done in one take. I’m not exactly surprised, even if weren’t true. If you’ve watched the Jubilee 2 DVD, they mention Allman being a huge Cathedrals fan in the 80’s (who wasn’t). Many have added input that there are aspects of Allman that even remind them of Kirk Talley…with Mark Trammell being one of them. I guess he would know…he’s sung with both. Before Allman left in ’95 or so, GV had done this a few times in concerts, as well as Allman even cutting it on a table project in the late 90’s. And of course it’s a classic song that most have already heard. Every new project needs an old song right? And this song has always been a crowd-pleaser. There was talk of them putting this song off for now and including it on a later table project. You’ll be glad it stayed. Allman very naturally, sings the fire out of it, as many of you may have already seen on Youtube. The Hammond B-3 and Johnson’s electric guitar covers it with a blues oriented rendition that meshes nice with Allman’s vocal style. You’ll also notice a slightly faster pace (obviously not extremely drastic) than many other versions, but this cut is worth the excitement and suspense.
The Only Way: Barn burner. In concerts, Gerald will tell the story of a preacher friend of theirs that commonly says, “He’s not a good way, He’s not the best way, He’s the Only Way”. And so the concept of this song was born. This song goes from the accepted universalism in our culture today in verse 1 (sung together), to Nicodemus having to “be born again” (Griffin), to the appeal of the song’s testimony (Allman)…then we have a key change and kick it up a notch in typical Southern Gospel fashion. This was a Griffin-Allman collaboration. Once again, could this be a single? Personally, I don’t think so. It’s a quality song, sure. I mean, a person could catch themselves thinking Greater Vision had gone into a pagan, universalism, Oprah influenced, religious change after hearing the first two lines. So it’s different in its own way, but the meat of it is rather, well…southern gospel. So you certainly won’t press the skip button if you like southern gospel. But as I’ve said, I’ve been wrong before. This song could do great on radio. I don’t want anyone to get the impression that I think is a weak song, but the rest of the project is absolutely packed with so much great music, that I can tend to overlook the conciseness of the tune. But it’s solid. And it’s fast. Hardee’s favorite customers will start clapping by the first chorus. And stop by the 3rd verse.
Like I Wish I’d Lived: As you get to this point in the project, you’ll finally notice a departure in the music style. This is Griffin penned, as well as the next two cuts, and he gives Allman free-reign and Allman keeps it relatively condensed and easy. Goss’ light string arrangement opens things up, with plenty of breathing room. The message deals with the regrets of our past in an honest and candid perspective, but in the sense that they were already covered on the cross. God forgives and restores. Regrets and memories invade our spiritual lives and try to drag us down, but God’s grace can invade us too, when we are in total surrender to the reality of what He’s already done. This an easy listening tune with a great arrangement.
But God: There are only 3 songs listeners should be familiar with on the project. This is the same song Legacy Five recorded “Live in Music City”. It might be most memorable as it being proceeded by the emotional intro by Roger Bennett, in his battles with cancer. Written by Griffin, Greater Vision and particularly Gerald Wolfe churn out a stunning performance. It’s pacing is a slower tempo than the L5 version, with another marvelous string arrangement by Goss. As mentioned before, I believe Goss to be a master…even if I think orchestrations have been over-done, but at times an arrangement such as this catches your ear and settles a little while in your mind. And this is such a case. And what Wolfe delivers is soothing and nothing short of remarkable. Even with the help of Pro-Tools or Melodyne, Wolfe delivers this as it would be done in a live setting. It’s not exactly the most polished in terms of how we’re accustomed to hearing songs out of a studio. What Wolfe offers on this track is personal and inviting, almost detailing specific events in his life where it may have been all but worth it to give up…but God has given hope and life. Wolfe gathered up the listener up in his living room and just began to belt out his feelings on life and his conclusion of encouragement. Maybe I’m analyzing too much, but I hope I’m not the only to hear it.
We Still Have To Pray: You know a GV recording is going to feature a song on prayer, written by Griffin. The context is thought provoking. It reminds me of the theological medium concerning Arminiasm/Calvinism…1. Divine Sovereignty & 2. Human Responsibility. Neither party can deny the other, but ultimately God is in control of all things. Not that Griffin tries to implement his own personal doctrinal belief…and nothing seems forced about it. The story goes back to Isaac and Rebekkah, being barren. Isaac, being of the seed of Abraham, and representing God’s chosen people and God’s promise become burdened about the promise given. Flashes of God’s redemptive work is clearly at hand in the text of Scripture and in the context of the song. The hook is, “Even when we are in God’s will, we have to pray”. The point of the message being even in the midst of promises, God still calls on our human responsibility to take action. As with all of Griffin’s “Prayer” songs, there is a beautiful bridge that shows itself to be the peak of the song, at least in a musical sense. Not sure how I’d rate it to “It Pays To Pray”, for it’s not bigger instrumentally than it needs to be or that we’re used to hearing. But the end result is an equally and adequately, timely message
Eternity’s About To Begin: I’m not going to the extent that this cut is foreshadows GV’s future foray into “black gospel”, but there are particles of it in the intro, as the B-3 holds it down from beginning to end. The beginning is a bit of a soulful groove laid down by Allman. You almost expect Brooklyn Tab to be gunning it..but then GV returns to its traditional roots for the remainder of the song. But let it be said, that there aren’t too many tenors that could pull this off the way off Allman does. It’s vaguely reminiscent of a Talley infused “Rivers of Joy” classic moment, but with a little more vocal conservatism. It’s a solid song, combining elements of blues/gospel. Something like this might cause folks to get a little excited during a live performance. Single worthy? Hmmm…does anybody really care what is single worthy anymore? Sirius/Enlighten… anyone?
Heaven Can’t Be Far Away: I’m just going to assume that everyone had heard the original version on GV’s “The King Came Down”, which many actually believe to be the “darkhorse” favorite GV project of all time (didn’t say that was my personal opinion). Fast forward 18 years…and it’s back. There’s no question that it’s always been an excellent song. The writer Steve Hurst, actually recorded it with the Mark Trammell Trio on “Once Upon A Cross”, during his odd tenure. The new cut really isn’t that much of a departure from the original…keyed lower of course. Wolfe is, not so old. But 18 years of traveling and singing can put age and wisdom on an individual. You can hear the Hallelujah pains for heaven in his voice (especially after the Harold Camping incident). He’s 18 years closer to home this time around, and he’s a little more ready to go. I actually believe him more than I did last time, when he sings, “This ole’ body is feeling sweet release”. And he nails it. He clearly doesn’t have the range or power that he used to, but that’s no matter. The legend is singing “Heaven Can’t Be Far Away” and he’s very persuasive about it.
Another Child’s Coming Home: Along with “No Longer Chained”, this is the other cut I’m personally most excited about. As soon as you listen to it, you’ll know it wasn’t written by Griffin. Stylistically, it’s very different…but not in a way that you wouldn’t think of it to fit on a southern gospel set list. I have a friend, who loves almost everything about rap music (yes, I have those types of friends). Not the commercial rap you hear on the radio about sex, drugs, and being gangster, but the underground circle, writing about social justice, racism, politics, beauty, faults and failures, poetic imagery etc. We went out to dinner and I played this song for him. His eyes became moist. He didn’t say a word until it was over. His only response, “that was beautiful, and well written”. To say this is a lyrically dynamic song would be missing the point. This isn’t the most “original” song, lyrically. But the way that it flows is pure, real, and undone. You can almost hear Allman’s heart and soul pouring into every line written and every note sung. The song deals with the parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15. But for every sermon aimed at focusing on the prodigal son is to lose the forest for the trees. That passage would be more aptly titled, “The Parable of the Father’s Love”. That is not say sin is okay or God’s wrath is not real. But what dominates that text, is indeed the welcoming heart of the Father. Allman captures this picture brilliantly. As Griffin brought us into the actual story of the Roman Soldiers relationship with Paul and the God appointed advancing of the Gospel, here we are smack dab in the middle of the emotional aspect of of a story.
The verses, chorus, and the bridge are all from the voice of the Father. The 1st verse almost indicates the Father is simply waiting for his son to come home, talking to him as if he were in the room with him and pleading with him to come back and assuring the son of His love. The 2nd verse moves as if the son has come home, and here they are in road, in which the Father is once again assuring the son of His love. The bridge is turned towards the brother, and ends with the Father assuring him of his love also, “If it were you out in the rain, I would be waiting for you”. It’s mostly light, until the apex, in which Goss arranges a string situation that makes you feel as if you were watching a clip from “Braveheart” (at least after the 2:30 mark). There is a slight change in harmony in the last chorus which you will hear, that is so small, yet adds so much vibrancy for the end of the song. It’s heartfelt. What separates this song from other Prodigal songs is this…I can almost hear their voices singing as if they had really experienced pain, or loss, heartbreak, or maybe even a similar prodigal story in their own life or in another they may love. We all know that story too well. At some point in our life, we’ve been in at least one of these character’s shoes or know someone who has. I heard it rumored that during the session, studio musician David Johnson broke down during this particular song as “scratch” vocals were being laid down. It’s a story that no matter our age, race, or class, unites us in a way in which we are all common. Heartbreak makes us human. The heavenly Father gives us life, which is eternal. This may be the best song Allman has brought to the table in a long while. And for those that like stuff out of the box musically, I’m hard-pressed to think of a song resembling this one exactly, recorded by Greater Vision.
Regardless of your opinions and preferences on their actual voices, these are arguably the 3 best lyrical singers in southern gospel music, as even Avery would admit. Allman brings GV a style, swagger, and coolness that elevates the experience of the music. Furthermore, I believe over so much time Wolfe and Griffin’s voices have become so interchangeable. 97% of the time I can distinguish their voices, but ever so often…their blend is so tight, that detecting who’s singing what isn’t so easy. You might catch yourself thinking ’bout that. Another bright note is that not a single song sounds the same. Honestly, in this genre…that’s something that is hard to achieve. Griffin is still a master song-writer. I can admittedly be a hard critic. Who knows if this will be a project we’ll be labeling over the years as top of the line…but it has potential to do great things. The song order is fine…it gets a little slow on tracks 6-8 (3 consecutive), but it doesn’t exactly take anything away from the project.
It’s not the most expensive project, nor the most illustrious, artistic, or anticipated. And as much as I initially liked it, I didn’t see it’s true originality or its true escape, the genuineness of its message, until I had listened to it about 5 or 6 times. It began to grow. And the the more I listened, the more life I could hear and see. And it took on a life of its own. I kept waiting for another track, and that became my only disappointment. This project is well worth your money.
Producer: Gerald Wolfe
Strings arranged by: Lari Goss
Studio Musicians: Gerald Wolfe, Jason Webb, David Johnson, Mylon Hayes, Tony Creasman, Nashville String Machine.