“Absolutely Gospel” Review

Russ Taff – Faroe Islands

Producer: Jakup Zachariassen, Óli Poulsen and Kristoffer Mørkøre

Label: Spring Hill Music Group

Website: http://www.russtaff.com

After years and years of being a fan of Christian music, sometimes it’s easier to turn to the old stuff than to try something new. I mean, how can we possibly keep coming up with new ways to express the same things? For an artist whose career has remained lauded across decades, the answer was to get away from it all, go to a strikingly-beautiful place to record, and showcase exactly what works: the message and the messenger.

And so, the answer to the “how to make it new again” question may very well lie in Russ Taff’s Faroe Islands. Let me first lay the disclaimer here that I adore Russ and his wife Tori as people (and I adore their daughters and their dogs, too!), but until recently, I was largely unfamiliar with all but his most iconic songs. Having gotten to know his catalogue a little better in the past year, I can with some authority say that Faroe Islands reflects what is absolutely awesome about Russ Taff; and by awesome, I mean powerful, passionate, and personal.

What Russ does is genre-defying and inimitable. He does not just sing a song; he seems to be breathing it in and out. His own connection with the words translates into something tangible for the listener to experience. In the track, “Heaven,” for example, an old lady leaving flowers at a grave, wishing to go “home,” becomes us, or perhaps our mothers, or even our grandmothers, and the idea of “home” stirs us, even as Russ describes it as a place of peace, shamelessness, and equality.

On “I Believe in You,” the resilience of tested faith is put to music. Again, Russ takes a familiar concept – perseverance in the Christian walk – and translates it through sound. It isn’t just the sung words which communicate the idea; it is the “been there” reality, almost like scars, in his voice. (It might be a familiar song, too, as this one is a Bob Dylan cover…)

“Missionary Man” will stop you when you hear it. It’s the haunting voices at the beginning, it’s the backed-off instrumentation throughout the first verse, it’s the cadence-like way the simple but vivid descriptions are communicated. At the end of the song, we’ve been given a look inside the heart and mind of a missionary.

“Go Play In the Sun” is a song filled with the promise of grace and freedom, but again, edged with something unique. There is a parental love stressed in this one, a strong, uplifting, healing love meant to bring freedom to all God’s children. Who couldn’t use a dose of that?

One of my favorite tracks happens to be a cover of one of my favorite songs, Larry Gatlin’s “Help Me.” I didn’t think I could love a cover of it as much as I love Johnny Cash’s, but Russ proved me wrong. I will listen to this one over and over again.

“God’s Love,” with its stunning line, “This world is so loud, millions of voices all fighting to be heard. I’m just a face in the crowd trying to reach You, but I can’t find the words.” This sentiment seems to be a sign of our times, when even Christians struggle to feel worthy, accepted, and important in a world often clouded with discouragement. This track, co-written by Russ and Tori, is a rockin’ reminder that God’s love is like a hurricane, and that He knows us by name. (Amen!)

The instrumentation throughout, ranging from brass to mandolin and steel guitar, is fitted to the songs’ moods (I especially enjoy how it fits together on the lovely “Harvest”). The background vocals serve to complement Russ in places and amp up the mood in others. Also – bonus!- there are 16 tracks, a real treat by today’s typical 10-song-per-CD standard.

But as an overall project, this is more than the sum of its ample parts. What is showcased here is not just a voice, not just the songs, but a true, human communicator, who through the years has nearly-perfected an ability to bring a song to life because he is not afraid to show what it means to his own life. And so, upon listening to it, it becomes a part of our lives, too.

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