39. Russ Taff – Russ Taff

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.

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  1. September 29, 2011 at 6:39 pm

    I liked this album on the first time I listened to it. “Medals” and “The Way Home” both which I had heard before were a little bit different than this. For me it’s hard to say which of those three Russ Taff albums is the best. They all are important albums. All Music Guide doesn’t appreciate this album. I have never understood why. “Walk Between the Lines” is my favorite Russ Taff song with “I’m Not Alone” which is from “Medals”. I almost could say that I had heard that song before – maybe it is so perfect song that it sounds like it has been there forever. This album has many classic songs – “This Love Is Strong” is one of them. You know I have to listen this album through again – it’s been too long time since the last time.

  2. The B Man
    September 30, 2011 at 1:45 am

    There were a number of albums out around this time by “big names” in CCM that were more introspective in nature. This album is one of my top ten all time favorites. It is such a powerful album the whole way through and what makes me come back to Russ Taff over and over again. Thanks for placing it high on the list!

  3. shawnuel
    September 30, 2011 at 6:12 am

    I would have agreed with you 15 years ago, and “Russ Taff” was definitely a huge artistic step for the singer. However, I don’t feel like it stands the test of time like truly great works should. It certainly doesn’t sound as dated as Medals, but compared to more daring releases before and since, it just doesn’t stand the test of time for me. Top 200, absolutely….maybe top 100, but I listen to The Way Home and Under Their Influence WAY more than this album.

  4. greenchili
    September 30, 2011 at 7:53 am

    This album took a while to grow on me.. Mostly due to the change in style from it’s predecessor. But it pretty much has become my Fav RT album.

  5. Tim
    September 30, 2011 at 12:57 pm

    Absolutely loved this album from the very first listen. His finest work by far and the one project that showcased the sound that I believe Taff could have used and refined for the next 10 years to become the biggest name in CCM ever. Instead, he changed his sound on the very next album and never looked back. That’s my only disappointment about this album.

  6. September 30, 2011 at 2:44 pm

    First time I heard this I was in a friend’s car and he had the cassette playing. When I Still Believe came on, I couldn’t believe Russ Taff was doing a Call song. I couldn’t believe anyone in CCM had heard of The Call. I bought this CD and remember thinking, “What dark night of the soul did Russ Taff just go through?” I love this CD, but like shawneul I listen to The Way Home and Under Their Influence a lot more often.

    • Tim
      September 30, 2011 at 5:45 pm

      Actually, at the time of the CD release, I read the CCM article about this album, and Taff admitted to having a ‘dark night of the soul’ in a hotel room desperately crying out to God for answers and, at some point that night, on the radio he heard the song “I Still Believe.” He said it spoke to him and helped him through that hard time. Taff said that he wanted to find a way to include that song on his next album. And I’m so glad he did. Maybe that difficult time colored the mood of the whole album, I don’t know.

  7. September 30, 2011 at 4:20 pm

    Great CD. I had this one, i 2 (Eye), and Lead Me On on repeat on my cassettes for a year or more and when Walk Between the Lines comes up on my iPod today it brings a smile to my face.

  8. harvey_d
    October 3, 2011 at 12:46 pm

    This is one of those albums I bought pretty much because of the cover. I hadn’t heard of Russ Taff or The Call yet, and barely knew who Charlie Peacock was, although I think I recognized that he wrote Down in the Lowlands. Anyway, I was not disappointed at all with my purchase.

  9. DanW
    October 3, 2011 at 2:33 pm

    Great review. As a teenager, my friends who didn’t listen to CCM thought this album was good, especially I Still Believe. They recognized I Still Believe from the soundtrack of the movie the Lost Boys. The next year, Geoff Moore and the Distance released Foundations, which followed a similar dark vein and was their best album, in my opinion. Also, Steve Taylor’s I Predict 1990 from the same year as Russ Taff was a great album with a darker, brooding feel. This was a great two years for CCM but unfortunately almost none of it made it to radio play.

  10. Dan Bush
    October 6, 2011 at 8:07 pm

    Heard this for the first time just a few years after becoming a believer. I came from hard rock into the Christian scene of Amy Grant, etc. A friend of mine turned me on to this album and The Imperials “This Year’s Model” and it changed how I looked at Christian music.

    This is one of my top 5 albums of all times, one I go back to often.

  11. Bill B
    October 7, 2011 at 4:16 pm

    Admit that I am SHOCKED to find this album in your list. Confess that I had decided to give up on this blog as I wasn’t impressed with many of your choices and got tired of waiting. (Sorry for my bluntness.)

    This was one of the first albums (cassette, actually) that I bought and was my introduction to Russ Taff. I have been a fan ever since. ‘I Still Believe’ remains one of my favorite songs of all time! An excellent album.

  12. Brett C
    October 8, 2011 at 8:55 am

    Great album that still stands up today IMHO.

  13. October 23, 2011 at 4:40 am

    I disagree, I still listen to this all the time. From that era, it holds up very well thanks to Dave Perkins and Lynn Nichols influences on the album. It doesn’t hold up as well as Chagall Geuvara or I Predict: 1990, but its darn close. In my top-five for sure, because not only does the music hold up, but the lyrics are still incredibly personal and relevant to me.

  14. Ecron Muss
    January 24, 2012 at 11:12 am

    The album always suffered from overproduction, too much reverb and Russ’ voice being buried in the mix.

    Maybe, in the pre-Autotune days… no, I’m not going there, you’ll hate me!

    But this is an album that would benefit substantially from a remix & remaster.

  15. Greenchili
    January 27, 2012 at 10:03 am

    “Taff’s version of this Chris Eaton penned tune is vastly superior to the original.”

    Who did the original “Believe In Love”?

  16. y2daddy
    February 6, 2012 at 2:18 pm

    I am really glad to see this album so high up the list. I have loved it for a long time and play it on every road trip I ever take. Certain albums need to be taken as a whole and this one serves that purpose for me.

  17. Keith Wiederwax
    November 15, 2012 at 1:28 pm

    I totally agree, but I would rate it even higher. This album was dark, different, and sounded awesome on headphones. It was gut wrenching and soul searching. Taff’s best album by far and it broke my heart when a guy with that great of a rock voice went country!

  18. carole
    March 18, 2013 at 5:53 pm

    I really enjoyed this info. When you hear Russ Taff, the thing that draws you is the anointing. As he is so vulnerable, God just flows through him. He makes me want to know Jesus more.

  19. July 12, 2015 at 12:16 am

    Hands down the best CD of the 80’s. Russ is a close friend and I know how much of this project came out of his personal struggle. Who among us has no struggle??? Every song is laced with passion, prayer and pain. In the midst we look for hope and help… RT’s cry is real and relevant. Closing song… If I can make it today, there’s hope for me tomorrow. This is not a casual listen for subjective interpretation… It’s a genuine artistic creation of authenticity from one of the greatest voices and one of the greatest people I’ve had the honor of knowing!

  1. September 29, 2011 at 10:26 pm

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