39. Russ Taff – Russ Taff
RUSS TAFF (1987)
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.