Brian Free & Assurance: Debut Project #1
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.
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.
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.