Brad – United We Stand

Brad – United We Stand

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In another realm, Brad would be a super group of inevitable scale. But the band’s spotty and infrequent output hasn’t exactly allowed for a devoted following. No judgment, though; the band’s members include Stone Gossard (Pearl Jam) and Shawn Smith, all of whom keep busy in various musical pursuits. So, a new Brad album is always a special out-of-cycle present and normally a cause for celebration.

Straddling the line between heart-on-sleeve confessional and muscular rock, but never cloying, Brad own the niche between Arcade Fire and Foo Fighters. Which is why it’s so damn upsetting to hear United We Stand fail to deliver on any of Brad’s best elements. The key ingredient has always been Shawn Smith’s soulful vocals, his expressive piano and his knack to lay it all on the table lyrically. He’s no stranger to positivity; you will frequently find references to prayers, love, sunshine, forgiveness and other subjects that would derail lesser bands straight into twee-pop territory. And there’s something about Smith’s tenor that is so irony-free it’s almost heartbreaking like the lovechild of Prince and Van Morrison.

All that is still present on United We Stand, too, but it’s couched in forgettable melodies, non-existent guitar parts and rote drumming. “Miles of Rope” isn’t the strongest song to open an album with; it is Smiths’ strongest vocal performance, but he wastes the intro on “na, na, na’s” and a repetition of “Amen, Amen, Amen” s, as if he knows Brad fans should be pleased with the band’s return. The song stumbles out of the gate (as opposed to some of their more perfect album openers) and the album is off to a poor start. It’s not made better by “Bound In Time,” either: a rehash of staid themes (“how many lives must we lose/ before we understand/ what’s the reason”) that just exists behind a drum beat, bound nowhere. “Diamond Blues” and “Last Bastion” add a little spark to the still unlit fire, but both sound like rock-by-the-numbers. Gossard has been working with same guitar tone for almost 20 years now in Pearl Jam and he’s not about to switch it up here. But it sounds so stock and standard it may as well have been dialed up as a preset in Garage Band.

“Needle and Thread” brings some musical complexity back into the mix by offering a well-thought song structure and, of course, Smith doing what he does best on the keys and vocals. And “Through the Day,” despite Smith’s proclivity for mumbling his vocals, is a hell of a piano ballad to end up on. It fades away like bells in the fog, hinting at what could have been.

Given the album’s title and cover, as well as some oddly telling song titles like “Tea Bag,” I suspected that Brad might be offering up some political critique. No such evidence, though, unless you count Smiths’ standard questioning of why we can’t all “trust our fellow man.” United We Stand sounds formulaic, in need of a sharp shot in the arm. And for Brad, who’s output is already tragically sparse, that’s a cardinal sin.


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