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Brian Free & Assurance: Debut Project #1

June 10, 2011

What has been done on other sites is something I really enjoy reading, The Classic Album Reviews or as Burke has a category of “Forgotten Gems”.  Without imitating what other bloggers have done, I’ll be doing a series of “Debut” projects.  Now, I do heed warning to my readers that I may in fact, use that term loosely.  I have a rather large collection, but in no way do I own every southern gospel debut.  So I may play with it a little.  But first up…Brian Free & Assurance.

The self-titled debut from Brian Free & Assurance was a solid recording that cast the vision and set the foundation... and they had awesome hair.

When Brian Free & Assurance hit the scene, you’d think to hear a style of some similarity to Gold City.  Brian Free.  Mike LeFevre.  It didn’t really go down that way.  In fact, it was a style very different from what Gold City had established.  Free & Co. hit the studio to record something more akin to GVB’s “Peace of the Rock” for traditional, Gold City fans.  We have some drum loops, pop-oriented synthesizers, and some very contemporary, sorta fluffy material lyrically.  Not exactly what the average John Saw when this group was being organized.

But essentially what this project did do is make a statement about Free’s own personal vision and that is why it is important.  Of course, I remember when this CD came out (well, I owned the cassette) thinking this was a southern gospel group trying to be the 4Him of the traditional market (also a big 4Him fan).  But it was new, creative, and progressive and ultimately I liked it.  It was hard to picture Free and LeFevere giving birth to this nature of a recording so early after departing GC.  Not that I didn’t find them capable of producing a new style of music, but instead of progressing gradually and pushing the envelope with each new project, it was rather sudden and unexpected, especially if you were a GC disciple.

What I do love about this project is that I get to hear Kevin Price.  (By the way, does anyone have any updates on his whereabouts?)  Price was a talented vocalist and perfect for the direction Free envisioned.  He wasn’t a household name in SG like his two counterparts, but was probably the best overall vocalist in the group.  He reminds me a lot of Buddy Mullins, which also isn’t surprising since Buddy wrote or co-wrote 3 songs.   And just because I stated that there was some “fluffy” material doesn’t mean I think it was a bad project, or a bad idea.

In the 90s, who else did you go to when looking to do something different in southern gospel?  Michael English.  Chapel Music Group was a part of Star Song and mostly carried the progressive stuff in southern gospel at this time (also The Martins, and DBM would probably know more history about the Chapel era as well).  Michael English did a lot of work with them and the A&R Coordinator for this project was none other than Norman Holland.  So English calls his boy Michael Sykes to come help put this thing together and the Brian Free & Assurance era begins.

Southern Gospel purists had always had a hard time accepting all-male trios at this point, but a good bass is hard to find.  They really didn’t hit their stride until “4 God So Loved” hit the airwaves, after they added a bass.  But this self-titled debut is an important chapter in progressive southern gospel.

Stand Up For What I Stand For:  This song was written by the progressive southern gospel aficionados, Michael English, Michael Sykes, Tanya Goodman Sykes, Mark Lowry, Norman Holland, George Hairr.  This is a great cut and to my knowledge, scored a Singing News Top 10 hit.  The essence of what this project intended is wrapped up in this particular cut and kicks off the project well.  The arrangement was excellent, and it was a hot track.  It defintely has some groove, and it’s no coincidence that this is one the standout songs on the project.  Listening to it, you can tell that the Michael English and Michael Sykes team had a hand in it.

Mercy Granted One More Time:  Free gives a nice soothing performance on this one.  In my opinion, this may be the strongest of the ballads.  The centerpoint of the message is found in this lyric,  “For His blood destroyed the traces that sin left behind, walk on His forgiveness, mercy granted one more time.”  If Garry Jones had produced this track, it would have been a song in the mold of “Pillars of Faith”.

Flood The Altar:  Now this is a Gold City esque song with a 90s contemporary flavor. “Sometimes you might have to flood the altar before He sends the fire”, is a nice catchy line referring back to the story of Elijah.  I have to give Free a lot of credit.  After the inception of BF&A, he has showed a lot of diversity.  He proves here that he CAN do something other than a traditional style.  Some people try and it doesn’t quite pan out.  I think it was around this time I realized that this BF&A thing could pan out afterall.

All Things Work Together:  Ever wondered what Mike LeFevre would sound like singing a song from a 4Him catalog?  You can test it out here.  But totally honest here…I like this song very much.  I like it’s groove.  LeFevre sounds a little out of his element here, but overall he does an excellent job.  Price nails it on the 2nd verse.  I know I compared him to Buddy Mullins earlier, but I even hear a little Price in Habedank’s voice.

Promises One By One:  I’ve probably heard about 10 different version of this song…from contemporary artists to southern gospel artists.  It has enough flavor for each type of fan, which could be why GVB recorded it 3 years later on “Lovin’ God & Lovin’ Each Other”, which I actually prefer this BF&A version for some reason.  It was defintely a crowd pleaser for 10 or so years.  Written by Kenneth Mullins and Daryl Williams, in a southern gospel market, this was actually ahead of its time in its own little way.   I think it got a little overplayed and overdone, but I can’t take from the fact that it was at one time, a great song.

What Others Choose To Endure:  Before Rodney Griffin was tossing out hit songs to other artists from the Songs of Greater Vision catalog, Chris Allman was gaining some notability as an up and coming writer… until he all but vanished for a decade or more.  This is in the “Stand Up For What I Stand For” and “Promises One By One” ballpark.  It’s an up-tempo number that seems to ride shotgun in driving the progressive vehicle, and Price puts a very textured, contemporary spin on this one that works very well.

I Can See Your House:  Phil Johnson seems to write a lot of songs that connect Heaven to the Cross.  Not that the method is obscure in southern gospel, but it’s very noticeable here.  The vocals seem to blend in with the synthesizers somewhat, adding a strange sound to be heard on a southern gospel recording.  It also sounds like a track that would be on one of the first couple of solo projects from Michael English.  But I got to be honest, I do like the song…it was just out of the ordinary of what I would have envisioned.

Only God Knows:  “she will never bake cookies with mommy”, “he will never run across a grassy meadow, go fishing with daddy, buy his first car”.  “Day by day we’re killing our future, the blood of little children are on our hands, What has happened to America, but in Heaven, God is picking up the pieces”.  I can’t really stretch this…the lyrics are this bad.  I’m not against sad, realistic songs, or songs that deal with standing up for abortion even…but this seems song seems like it’s not quite sure if it is a sad song or it wants to be the theme song for The Pregnancy Center.  I don’t mind writing a song about abortion or any other type of social justice endeavor that God is serious about, just wish it written differently.  In 1994, my money is on the fact that Brian Free didn’t vote for Clinton in the previous election.  I remember the talk among Conservatives, and they had me thinking America was in the gutter because Clinton was in office.  To make matters worse, in attempt to pull our sentimentalism…we have a children’s choir.  Old women cry when they hear children choirs.

Only To The King:  This a decent ballad featuring LeFevre and it fits him really well.  It sorta documents his own life in loving music, being from a musical family, but the calling on his life is to only bring praise, glory, and honor to the King.  Behind “Mercy Granted”, this may be the next best composed and performed ballad on the album.

It’s Time:  This basically cements that Price got the up-tempo numbers.  It’s a short song, a little over 2 minutes.   It has the opening track appeal to it, as indicated by it being the 1st song on the “Live in Atlanta” project.

Short synopsis:

The up-tempo cuts are mostly solid to standouts.  The progressive push works well in the production team catching the jazzy, soulful wave and applying it appropriately.  As a collective unit, the ballads and slower tempo songs never really hit me.  At times they were a little odd and seemed out of place…but I also don’t want to take the time period out of context.  I understand what they were going for, and for the most part they accomplished it.  With the exception of “Only God Knows”, there is no mediocre song necessarily.  But as I said, the toe tapping, funky groovers overshadow everything else with their superiority, to the point that you almost forget ballads about the ballads.   You may think I went overboard with the 4Him comparisons…but BF&A even thanks 4Him in the liner notes.  I don’t know many southern gospel artists that have done that.

Let me first state, this is a good project  I enjoyed it when I bought it, and for the most part still find joy in taking a listen every now and then.  It’s neat to see the evolution of the group, which is why I wanted to do this series (it’s my understanding that for a successful blog, you must have a “series” of something).  They scaled back a little musically in later recordings with this personnel, but they definitely made a statement that they weren’t Gold City…which I also find irony in the fact that the current Gold City style is beginning to sound like the current BF&A style, with none other than Michael English helping out with the production on their newest recording (well…).  Furthermore, I find BF&A to be a very solid quartet.  But had Free (or LeFevre and Parker for that matter) not ever graced a stage with GC, would we be talking about them as much?  And had GC never had the Free, Parker, or LeFevre lineup would we be still be interested in GC (I like adding parenthesis obvsiously, but for confirmation purposes, overall..I do like the nice GC lineup)?  If the 1st golden era of GC had never occurred, I firmly believe we never would have had the 2nd golden era (Trammell, Wilburn). It’s a strange relationship.  After all these years, they still rely on one another in a sense.  As much as I liked the first golden era of GC, I admit I enjoy Brian Free as a vocalist much more as a part of Assurance.  He doesn’t have to scream at the cheap seats, and sit in high chairs, and he no longer sounds “thinnish”, which I find much more pleasant.  His voice sounds mature.  I also personally enjoy listening to Bill Shivers sing.  I think he is the best lead singer in the business that no one talks about.

Even though BF&A were still figuring out their sound and style, at the time of its release, this was a good debut, especially for folks wanting to hear something different.  Their sophomore effort “Things That Last Forever” probably better sets the foundation for their sound, identity, and promise.

If you don’t own it, get it.  I had the cassette, but bought the CD on Amazon for $1.68 or something like that.  You can also find it on iTunes.

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23 Comments
  1. Wes Burke permalink

    Interesting concept, and a nice choice for the first installment. I have always thought the original trio of BFA has never gotten the attention they deserved, and agree that they were almost “4Him-lite” for SG. Price was a great lead vocalist. As for the disc, my favorites have always been “Stand Up”, “Mercy”, and “I Can See Your House.” Things That Last Forever was a further step in the same direction, and was an even better, if forgotten, CD.

  2. Great series idea! And a great post with which to kick it off!

    This is one of a small handful of BF&A projects that I actually don’t have, so I can’t offer commentary on the specific project. However, I can’t wait to hear your take on Introducing the Cathedral Trio… 😉

  3. I’m already planning to do some classics reviews myself. Great minds think alike! Be fun to see if we overlap. Maybe we could even team up for one…?

  4. I ought to answer something you said here though: “I remember the talk among Conservatives, and they had me thinking America was in the gutter because Clinton was in office. ”

    Frankly, “those conservatives” were probably onto something. When you have a guttersnipe in office, that’s a good step to putting his country in the gutter. I do agree with you that the song could have been written better, but let’s not de-emphasize the horrors of the left in the process. Also, let’s distinguish between “social justice” and “social justice.” I may get in trouble for saying this, but abortion is a far more serious issue than, say, racial discrimination.

    • Agreed. Just applying the political state of our country in 1994 southern gospel, and what might lead them to do a song like this, not making the statement that I’m pro-choice, because I’m not, and yes MORE serious..

      • Okay. I didn’t come away with the idea that you were, it’s just that generally when I hear people say, “Those conservatives got me thinking it was the end of the world because of x or y,” that indicates a sort of patronizing attitude towards whatever the conservatives were thinking. So I wanted to make sure that wasn’t where you were coming from.

  5. quartet-man permalink

    I have the CD, but wasn’t particularly impressed when I heard it. Maybe I would feel differently now. As far as Only God Knows”, yes it can be a little maudlin, but I think it is still a touching song. Sometimes you have to do so to get to people who think murder is okay if it gets them off the hook or those who fail to see it is murder. Now, it might not be a “Baby’s Prayer” or A Cappella’s “What Was I Supposed To Be”, but effective. I used it and Baby’s Prayer for a Sunday we had the Pregnancy Care center speaker at church. I made a Power Point slide show (not fetuses or anything that would be inappropriate for younger people) for “Only God Knows”. At least a few in the choir were against my doing it because they either were going to have trouble singing it due to imagining their newly born grandchild be aborted or one at least was concerned over how someone in the congregation might feel if they had had an abortion. Well, I talked it over with the pastor (who was also in choir) and he let me run it (he also knows abortion is wrong), but I just played the demo version with the slide show instead of having the choir do it. Although those who have had an abortion can be forgiven, and if they are I understand not rubbing their past in their faces, but basically I felt that is their cross to bear (if there were any out there). Should we quit preaching sin because it might upset someone who either is or did do the sin? Of course not. It is more important to try to keep others from sinning in the first place. So, as much as I want to be considerate of people’s feelings, we must continue to preach against sin.

    • I agree. I’ve been a little disappointed in how Tim Keller (of all people) has handled that very issue.

      Interesting that your choir felt odd about it. Myself, I don’t think there’s much to commend it from a musical perspective and might make a comment along those lines, but obviously the overriding message of the song is very important. Something’s not right if your concern for not offending people is superseding everything else.

      This reminds me of a great story about Mark Driscoll. He was at some sort of conference with a bunch of other pastors, including Brian MacLaren. They were all sitting around a table and taking questions from the audience, and someone asked Brian a question about homosexuality. Brian dithered a bit and eventually said that he wasn’t sure how to answer the question because “no matter what he said, he’d be offending somebody.” At which point Mark picked up his microphone and promptly said, “Well. And now you’ve offended God.”

      Zing.

  6. quartet-man permalink

    Bravo for Driscoll.

    • Absolutely. Now I do have real concerns about some other things he’s said (which I won’t get into here), but I have to hand it to him: He doesn’t beat around the bush when it comes to a clear presentation of gospel truth.

      • steven permalink

        Mark Driscoll Rocks! (don’t always agree with everything he says and i’m assuming we probably agree on what the concerns are …i’d love to see your thoughts on an upcoming blog)

        If you enjoy Driscoll, You should check out the Elephant Room – where a bunch of pastors get together and have some pretty deep discussions.

        BACK ON TOPIC: The BFA debut was a really great project! Love how they branched out from the Gold City sound, i believe that is what has made them successful all these years.
        Still though, I can’t stand the Only God Knows song. I’ll take Susan Whisnant’s “Church Across the Street” song any day

  7. quartet-man permalink

    I don’t know it was the whole choir, but at least a vocal few. The song still got played though even part of our time was wasted in the work done before the objections were voiced.

  8. By the way, I’ve always compared BFA to 4Him, but I didn’t know they actually acknowledged them in the liner notes for their debut. Really interesting! What did they say?

    • quartet-man permalink

      My CD is packed away and would be hard to get to. However, I suspect FNR’s should be pretty close by. 🙂

      • Yes, I was asking FNR. 🙂

      • I lost internet this weekend, and was out of town…sorry for the last responses. Basically, they just “thanked” 4Him in the liner notes. Nothing specific. I have a hunch that they were apart of the choir featured on one of the songs. I believe there may be more reasons, but that could be one of them…

      • quartet-man permalink

        I figured you probably were, but I would have answered had it been easier. :p

  9. Oh, and I also love “Mercy Granted.” Great retro ballad feel and a gorgeous vocal from Brian. However, I think the song I recently featured in my “borrowing” series called “Farther Than Your Grace Can Reach” is even better crafted along similar lines.

    By the way, you nailed exactly how I feel about Brian (Assurance days > Gold City days) and Bill Shivers (criminally underrated).

  10. Lee Black permalink

    A trip down memory lane… I got my first “professional” cut – Flood The Altar – on this project. I was so excited when it released that I couldn’t wait for a courtesy copy but went to the bookstore to buy the CD!

    Enjoying reading your blog.

    • Lee, I don’t blame you. It was a good song, and a great “first professional cut”. I would do the same thing had my first professional cut been on the BF&A debut release.

      • Yes, that’s a really good song! I dream of the day when something of mine gets cut. It will be glorious if/when it comes.

        FNR, have you ever had a cut?

  11. By the way, “Flood the Altar” sounds much more 80s than 90s to me. The intro is like something right out of an old Amy Grant/Michael W. Smith track.

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