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39. Russ Taff – Russ Taff

September 29, 2011 21 comments

RUSS TAFF (1987)

Russ Taff

At a time when the CCM world was rather complacent and, well…boring…one of its most traditional names released a truly authentic, game-changing album that would mark his finest accomplishment in a stellar and decades long career.

And NOBODY saw it coming.

After the release of his sophomore, mega-hit, “Medals” album, it was commonly expected that Russ Taff would return with “Medals Part 2.” After several years in the CCM MOR leading the Imperials and two very successful solo projects, the CCM world was due for quite a shake-up. And it could not have come at a better time. Carman was the best selling male artist and Michael W. Smith was quickly leaving his progressive “Big Picture” behind and returning to his more pop sensible roots. Steve Taylor was a fringe artist and mainstream CCM was just flat out style.

Then I pushed play and heard “Shake” for the first time.

From the dark and brooding album cover, to the dark and brooding musical and lyrical expressions, this was not a “happy CCM” album by any stretch and one of its most important artists was testing the waters of true artistic expression and winning over fans in droves. The album would also cover several “edgy” and important artists like Michael Been and Charlie peacock and give new life to those artists, given them a platform in CCM they previously were denied.

The album was long by the day’s standards, with several lengthy rocking jams and moody and introspective musical soundscapes. This matched the lyrical and artistic direction of Taff.

Before addressing the individual songs from the album I want to point out that my initial reaction to this album has not changed in nearly 25 years. It is loud! Very loud! It possesses some of the most impressive drum sounds in CCM history and a low end that had not been approached before production-wise. There is simply a lot going on in this album and is real “headphone delight!” All of previous criticism of jack Joseph Puig’s usually heavy-handed keyboard approach disappeared instantly.

The album kicks off with “Shake,” a driving song borrowing its content from the book of Hebrews. The songs message and medium were a perfect fit. Dann Huff just blazes here and elsewhere on the project while Nathan East and Jackie Street share bass duties. Huff leads a stellar cast that never misses a note.

“Walk Between the Lines” is the only song that may have fit comfortably on “Medals” but the musical arrangement and performance would have made it sound edgy by comparison. Taff’s vocals really shine on ballads and mid-tempo rockers because of the diversity it is allowed to explore. The song ended up being the first big hit from the project as radio was all over it.

A great of Taff’s passionate vocals carrying an otherwise “nice” ballad is “Believe In Love.” What would be a forgettable song in the hands of most other performers becomes a memorable, borderline classic with Taff. The instrumental bridge is pure Springsteen passion with a killer sax solo. Taff’s version of this Chris Eaton penned tune is vastly superior to the original.

But the album’s shift from the past truly hits stride on the cover of charlie peacock’s “Down in the Lowlands.” Where Peacock’s version is rather electronic and sparse, the arrangement here is full, groove-driven and sultry. It’s dark and mysterious. The world music influence carries a great instrumental arrangement and the backing choir as the song builds with Taff on top is near perfection. Peacock adds backing vocals here, much like he would later do on DC Talk’s cover of his “In the Light.”

The darker, more introspective feel to the album continues on, “The Love Is Strong.” Here again, the formulaic 3 minute hit radio arrangement is abandoned for an over 5 minute slow build that ultimately satisfies. But here again we find Taff singing on top of a great backing choir that carries the song.

The centerpiece of the album, and the greatest surprise is a cover Michael Been and The call’s classic, “I Still Believe.” When i was first told that Taff would be covering the song i was more than a bit skeptical. I always admired Taff’s vocal prowess, but sincerely doubted he could carry the song emotional intensity. I was wrong! Though I will always prefer Been’s gut-wrenching performance, Taff is no slouch. As the song builds to its unbelievably intense climax, Taff is more than up to the task. Even haters of CCM have admitted taff took major steps to relevancy and respect with this performance.

The much too short classic southern Gospel tune, “Steal away” features James Hollihan on steel guitar. MUCH TOO SHORT! Though the song would hint at projects to come.

“(Living on th) Edge of Time” is the only hiccup on the entire project for me. It’s not that the song or performances are in any way weak, it just sounds out of place and does not live up to the rest of the album’s high standards. If it was on any previous Taff project, it would have been a stand out.

“Higher” brings a great electronic groove with unique guitar and melodic tones. It is also builds into a great romp with the help of Rebecca Sparks. The vocal play between Sparks and taff as the song ends is just tremendous. Sparks is an often overlooked vocalist and possesses one of those great voices that deserved better.

The brooding and groove oriented “Breathe life into me” carries a David Pack type melody. It is one that doesn’t grab you as much as slowly draw you in and surround you. The subtle guitar work stands out here in the instrumental bridge.

“Healing Touch” closes out the album with another great ballad that showcases Taff’s powerful vocals. You do not just hear Taff on the song, but rather you feel him. A perfect close to a nearly flawless project.

The great joy about the album is not that it is filled with hit after hit, but rather just the opposite. it was not a radio friendly hit fest, but an authentic, real and unforgettable project that stays atop of the best CCM albums ever created by a mainstream Christian artists.

40. War – U2

September 16, 2011 7 comments

WAR (1983)

U2

For those who experienced the “War” tour can attest to the passion, praise and profound personal impact those concerts provided. Part rock and roll show, part worship experience. There was a genuineness to the event that seemed to fade as the band became rock stars over the following years. The innocence of the first two albums had begun to fade, but the “heart on the sleeve” militancy was still there.

Born out a friendship with limited musical abilities U2 went on the be the biggest band in the world. Humble beginnings in Dublin, Ireland led to worldwide fame and acclaim. Four lads who individually could not carry a band formed a group that truly personifies the sum is greater than the parts. Bono, The Edge, Larry and Adam have remained the only members of the band since the release of their first single in 1979.

Drummer Larry Mullen is quoted as saying that his original hoped were to name the group, The Larry Mullen band, but minutes after Bono entered the room all of those hopes were dashed. Larry, Bono and Teh Edge would all soon become involved with a charismatic Church in Dublin and that original connection would have influences that would last until today.

The spiritual roots run very deep in Ireland, especially during the time. But for the most part in showed itself in political agendas. But for Bono and the boys it showed itself in compassion, mission and pacificity. One critic would state that U2 take pacifism to a military level. No matter what critics of the band state about Bono and the bands spiritual position, it remains true that the images and content used even until today are deeply rotted spiritual ones.

I was first introduced to U2 during my sophomore year in High School. The famed KROQ was playing “I Will Follow” and I was immediately drawn to the bands sound as it did not fit the synth/pop new wave sound the permeated the rest of the music industry. Kind or reminded me of The Clash without all the angst. Something positive and even borderline spiritual.

At that time I was always searching for bands with mainstream success that had Christian leanings, members or content to share with my unsaved friends so that I could also introduce them to directly Christian music like the Andy McCarroll and the Resurrection Band. Bands like Simple Minds, The Call and even Ian Cussick were early favorites.

I bought the band’s debut “Boy” the week it came out and also a little button with the album cover and the words U2 and Boy on it. Back in those days it was very popular for fans of a band to buy buttons and wear them on their jackets. This was most common amongst fans of ska, punk and new romantic music. Highlights from the album include: I Will Follow, Out of Control, The Electric Co. and Into the Heart.

Boy was produced Steve Lillywhite, a very progressive and “up and coming” producer who had worked with bands like Siouxsie and the Banshees. Lillywhite brought a distinctive sound, a wall of ethereal noise and limited breaks between songs as one folded into another. Even early on it was obvious this band was about Bono’s passion and charisma.

I was hooked.

“October” was released a year later and I bought it the week it came out as well. At first I did not like it as much, but over the years it has become one of my all time favorites. To call it “worshipful” would be an understatement. The story goes that while the band was recording the album a briefcase with the lyrics were stolen from their hotel room in Portland, OR. Bono is said to have “improvised” much of the content and this is why the spiritual and Christian themes deeply rooted in his soul came out in the recording process.

Like Boy did with “I Will Follow,” October starts with the more blatantly spiritual song, “Gloria.” The song can be taken no other way than its spiritual content. Even the Latin phrases are blatantly Christian in their content. In fact the verses reveal a man so awestruck be an encounter with God he remains unable to speak and asks the Lord for the words.

Gloria
In te domine
Gloria
Exultate
Gloria
Gloria
Oh, Lord, loosen my lips.

I try to sing this song
I, I try to get in
But I can’t find the door
The door is open
You’re standing there, you let me in.

Gloria
In te domine
Gloria
Exultate
Oh, Lord, if I had anything, anything at all
I’d give it to you.

The innocence was fading and these young men were becoming adults and struggling with this ominous task. They started to realize their frailties and this shows in another more directly Christian song, “Rejoice.”

And what am I to do?
Just tell me what am I supposed to say?
I can’t change the world
But I can change the world in me.

I rejoice.

With “War” everything seemed to change for the band. Lillywhite remained in the production booth, but this time the production was stripped way back and the sounds were closer to a live rock and roll band. Only “Achtung Baby” would be as raw sounding as “War.” Though many find the album to be a protest album of sorts, it is a protest album with a heart and an alternative. It’s easy to shout from the rooftops regarding the evils of the world, it is another to offer an answer with the same bold conviction. It is for that reason I believe “War” deserves its placement here on this list.

The live concert tour that supported this album included The Alarm as the opening acts and was an evening dedicated to bold proclamations. But the most bold moments came when Bono would hoist a white flag, march in military formation and declare a peace that only Jesus could provide. The evening would end with a young man Bono pulled from the audience playing three chords taught quickly to him by Bono to the song “40.” One by one the band members would leave the stage leaving this impromptu performing leading 15,000 fans in song singing together, “How long to sing this song?”

At one point during “Two heart Beat as One” Bono stopped the song midway as a small fight had broken out in the front row of the audience. Bono sat down on the edge of the stage, spoke to both young men and made them shake hands and embrace before continuing with the rest of the concert.

At another point in the concert Bono disappeared as the band played “New Years Day.” The spotlight finally found him on the complete opposite side of the auditorium on the second story walking along the edge railing. He was being held up by the crowd the was sitting in the front row of the second level. At one point he began to lower himself from the second level to the ground floor. He eventually dropped down onto the crowd that gathered below him. They all kept him afloat with their hands above their heads. He pointed to the stage and slowly but surely he was transported hand by hand across the entire bottom floor to the stage on the far side.

Where October came across like an existential and abstract artwork like a Monet, “War” is more direct and in your face and looks and sounds more like a cover of Life Magazine. October was the shadow and War is the reality.

As for the album itself it starts off in a very raw fashion with drum and guitar. This more stripped down feel would carry through most of the record. The drumming set a military type tone to a very anti-military type lyric.”Sunday Bloody Sunday” hearkens back to an event in Northern Ireland in 1972. Several protesters were shot and killed by British authorities including many teenagers. This event escalated the tension between the British and Irish, which had religious implications with the Protestants and Catholics on the differing sides. Bono refers to the events but broadens to the concept of war in general.

I can’t believe the news today
I can’t close my eyes and make it go away.
How long, how long must we sing this song?
How long, how long?
‘Cos tonight
We can be as one, tonight.

Broken bottles under children’s feet
Bodies strewn across the dead-end street.
But I won’t heed the battle call
It puts my back up, puts my back up against the wall.

Sunday, bloody Sunday.

The phrase “how long to sing this song” would come in the albums closing song, “40″ and serves as the ultimate theme of the project, working as bookends of a sort. Bono addresses the impact on families and communities before offering a glimmer of hope and exclusively tying it into where that only hope resides.

The real battle just begun
To claim the victory Jesus won
On…

Sunday, bloody Sunday
Sunday, bloody Sunday.

At first glance “Seconds” is straight forward anti-nuclear proliferation protest song. Written at the height of the Cold War and the increase in China’s military presence, this song could easily be reworked today to include other nations. But once again Bono couches the message with Biblical imagery that is unmistakable.

Lightning flashes across the sky
East to West, do and die.
Like a thief in the night, see the world by candlelight

“New Years Day” was the only song to chart in the US despite many fans, even casual fans, would assume many other songs from the album were “hits.” But in actuality the only song to chart in the Top 100 was “New Years Day” with several others charted on the “rock” chart only. “New Years Day” remains a staple during their live shows quite possibly due to the universal nature of the songs solidarity theme.

If the theme of the album is to be “protest” then “Like a Song” is a protest against complacency and selfishness. Bono pleads with his listeners to stop the labeling of one another in hopes of demonizing the so-called enemy.

And we love to wear a badge, a uniform
And we love to fly a flag
But I won’t let others live in hell
As we divide against each other
And we fight amongst ourselves
Too set in our ways to try to rearrange
Too right to be wrong, in this rebel song
Let the bells ring out

Again amidst the protest and defiant content Bono realizes the only answer to these problems resides not in governments or treaty’s but in a heart that is changed.

Angry words won’t stop the fight
Two wrongs won’t make it right.
A new heart is what I need.
Oh, God make it bleed.
Is there nothing left?

On a musical note I should point out that this song may not contain Mullen’s finest drum work (I believe it does) but his hardest and loudest without a doubt! The song closes with a great drum and guitar interchange that is powerful and angry.

“Drowning Man” is the only song on the album that would work well on “Boy” or October.” With more of an atmospheric sound to the both the music and the vocals Bono cries out…

Hold on, hold on tightly.
Hold on, and hold on tightly.
Rise up, rise up with wings like eagles.
You run, you run.
You run and not grow weary.

Hold on, and hold on tightly.
Hold on, hold on tightly
This love, lasts forever.
Now this love lasts forever.

Again, for anyone with a Biblical background the content is quite clear where the hope for rescue resides.

“The Refugee” possesses a truly different musical and vocal style than anything up to this point. Nearly tribal and intense African-like rhythms, but these support a large melodic chorus. This is often a forgotten U2 number, but I remember it working quite well live on that tour.

“Two Hearts Beat as One” is about as honest and passionate a love song as a punk band can muster. There is no bravado here, but rather an uncomfortable unknowing and anticipation. This is not a “c’mon baby” song but a song written by someone searching for the right words but is at a loss. So, in a sense, it is a protest against the norms of self-driven love and sexual dominance of the music scene.

I don’t know
How to say what’s got to be said
I don’t know if it’s black or white
There’s others see it red
I don’t get the answers right
I’ll leave that to you
Is this love out of fashion
Or is it the time of year?
Are these words distraction
To the words you wanna hear?
Two hearts beat as one.
Two hearts beat as one.
Two hearts.

It’s hard to say exactly who takes on the role of speaker in “Red Light.” The song about a prostitute that refuses help seems odd on the record but seems to work both musically and lyrically as the I take it to be God who is protesting the ways in which someone would need to make a living and reaching and willing to give her real love. This is actually quite radical when one considers the limited ministry effort to reach this person and yet God is calling out to them and willing to show them true love.

Musically “Red Light” is more experimental, like “The Refugee” and would point to some of the musical expressions to be more thoroughly examined on Achtung Baby and Rattle and Hum.

“Surrender” continues the war dominated theme where the greatest offensive weapon is to lay down your life for a friend. Victory is preserved by surrendering to something greater and more important than self. Here the war is not fought with gun, tanks and politicians but a battle fought in the soul. This is a spiritual battle that wages that is not seen by our eyes. The good works of the main character “Sadie” does not satisfy her nor bring her relief. Finally in the songs final words Bono provides the answer.

It’s in the street gettin’ under my feet
It’s in the air, it’s everywhere I look for you.
It’s in the things that I do and say
And if I wanna live I gotta die to myself someday.

The album closes with the worshipful “40″ with the lyrics taken directly from Psalm 40.

I waited patiently for the Lord.
He inclined and heard my cry.
He brought me up out of the pit
Out of the miry clay.

I will sing, sing a new song…

How long to sing this song?…

You set my feet upon a rock
And made my footsteps firm.
Many will see, many will see and hear.

I will sing, sing a new song…

How long to sing this song? …

The interesting note behind this song was that bass player Adam Clayton had left the recording studio one evening as the band realized they really did not have a “finishing” type song for the record. They hurriedly wrote out the lyrics borrowing from Psalm 40 and adding the albums first song’s refrain of “How long to sing this song?” With Adam’s absence The Edge played both bass and electric guitar on the song. So now in concert as they have nearly always finished their concerts with the song, Adam plays electric guitar and The Edge bass.

Though the record may not have been a “game changer” in the music world, there have been several people that have told me over the years that it was clearly a “life-changer.” It resonated with young Christians and remains an integral part of the soundtrack and fabric of their lives and testimony.

41. Shaded Pain – LSU

September 12, 2011 18 comments

SHADED PAIN (1987)

LSU (Lifesavers Underground)

“Mr. Frontline Rep…do you have a return authorization form with you?”

I heard the above phrase more than a handful of times soon after the release of “Shaded Pain” by owners of Christian bookstores who were offended, outraged and incensed over the content and sound of the “debut” Lifesavers Underground project. After the safe and strong selling Lifesaver album, “Kiss of Life,” the dark and “scary” Shaded pain was too much for an industry still dominated by Carman, Amy Grant and Sandi Patty.

Shaded Pain is the polar opposite to “Kiss of Life.” Where the latter was filled with pop laden, hook filled “new wave” with hopeful images and even a radio single, the former is dark, post-punk, Gothic and filled with images of loss, death and darkness.

A testament to the sheer brilliance and remarkable talent of LSU ring-leader, Michael Knott, both albums are spectacular within their own realms. A closer listen to both shows an artist in transition and one clearly at the top of his game. Knott’s artistry is shown also in the albums artwork, which many stores complained was “scary” and laden with phallic symbols (seriously!).

It would not be long, though, before those same stores re-ordered the project as it’s word of mouth, “underground” following built sales pressure on the industry. It also wasn’t long before it was considered the finest alternative album of the year and is now considered one of the finest in its renege. There is no way to exhaust the superlatives in relation to this project.

Lost, though, in the discussion of the dark and eerie content is Knott’s remarkable penchant for memorable hooks and unforgettable melodies. In fact, when one strips away the images and ethereal, dark tones guitar and vocals, the album is really a wonderful collection of sensible pop songs filtered through a darker and more transparent songwriting style.

Chris Brigandi (Lifters, Wild Blue Yonder) produced the album for pennies and deserves kudos for breaking barriers and giving Knott the room to breathe here. Brian Doidge’s guitar is spot and really drives the messages with a fierce and uncontrolled abandon. This is punk rock in the most conservative, defining way; one in which the freedom to express both lyrically and musically the angst and furor of youth with no restrictions.

To be thanked for this amazing contribution to the CCM world, Knott was marginalized, criticized and repudiated by bookstores, many in the CCM press and radio shrieked in horror. Fans and critics, though, would herald Knott for many years to follow as the most important figure in his genre, on par with Terry Scott Taylor and Mike Roe. But for all the recognition and praise, this would remain his finest hour.

The albums kicks off with the most “pop” song on the disc. It is the closest thing to “Kiss of Life” and would serve as a bridge between the two albums. But the content would never have flown on the previous release, as its theme of death and “crossing over to the other side” would set the mood for the entire project and remain a constant theme throughout. I guess one can address the theme safely on countless Southern Gospel and Negro Spirituals, but the theme is off-limits in white, suburban Christianity.

The common spiritual theme of the old man and the sinful nature is addressed in uncommon darker themes in “Bye Bye Colour.” The grace-filled world in its colorful display is replaced a blue, blue heart. One can feel the coldness in the music that couples the songs lyrical theme.

The same theme remains on “Die Baby Die” where the protagonist must confront the old nature and kill it, in no uncertain themes. The lyrics are rather limited, so here it is all about passion and performance. I cannot say for sure this is Knott’s finest vocal expression, but I cannot think of any that are better. He lets loose and screams with an abandon that fits the mood and sense of the song like few others of its contemporaries.

Love lost and spiritual reckoning combine thematically in the silky and eerie, “Lonely Boy.” The guitar work here is fantastic both in its subtle moments and at the points in which it is the primary focus. Winding and whirling, Doidge’s work is the perfect accompaniment to Knott’s pained expressions.

Even on the albums most optimistic song, “Our Time Has Come,” the theme of spiritual awakening amidst a failing Church, the call is to “kiss the clever.”  Knott never made it easy on himself here. The imagery in this song may be the finest on the whole project. Borrowing from Revelation’s judgment scene, the song embraces God’s judgment as one that purifies and brings life in the harvest time.

The personal favorite from the album is “Tether to Tassel.” Though I would never want to read too much (or not enough) into the lyrical content here, I recognize themes of graduation and being forced into the real world (prison to Bastille) where one is responsible for their own faith and decisions. A more hook oriented riff, the chorus sticks long after the fade.

“I’m Torn” sounds like a refugee from the Idle Lovell project and continues the albums rich theme of loss, death and struggle in this world while yearning for the next.

The sheer radical abandon of “Plague of Flies” was actually how I was first introduced to this project. Mike MacLane of Frontline Records called me into his office and played the original demo for me. Like many, my initial response was “what the crap was that?” It was not very often that the expression “balls to the wall” would fit in a review from a CCM artist, but that is exactly what the song is/was. I loved all 87 seconds of it!

“Plague of Flies” bleeds immediately into “More to Life,” a song that is best described as “fearless.” A full force attack on false ministries and a Church that is inward focused and loveless. Knott cries out that there must be more than these Godless ministers and ministries bastardizing the name of Christ.

The title track closes the album, and ironically, is the mellowest song on the album. Accompanied by a dark and lonely acoustic piano melody, Knott’s “echoed” vocals are poignant and pain-filled. A brilliant close to the darkness that preceded it, the song sounds more like a funeral dirge than altar call. There is no Aesop’s Fable moral to the story here. Knott does not cop-out with common “christianese”  to placate the CCM world, but rather he continues the questions without resolution.

It would be a few years before the album would receive the cult-like status it now holds, but some 25 years later, it still remains of the finest and most important albums ever released by a Christian label.