While Pearl Jam has always had a strong pop sensibility to its arena-ready hard rock sound, Brad, the side project co-founded by Pearl Jam rhythm guitarist Stone Gossard, delivers full-on pop music, albeit with an intelligent, psychedelic edge.
The first song on Brad’s new album, United We Stand (its fifth full-length album in 20 years, all four members have regular gigs in other bands), is a dreamy number called “Miles of Rope” that evokes the sound of The Beatles’ Revolver. The melodic voice of lead singer Shawn Smith (who also fronts Pigeonhed), which strikingly resembles that of Blues Traveler frontman John Popper minus the prettiness and trilling, blends in well with the retro-trippy pillow of a song. However, “Miles of Rope” does break into a brief heavy guitar interlude that is pure Seattle 1992 before drifting back into George Harrison territory.
The dreamy vibe floats through other songs such as “Bound in Time,” with its slightly distorted underwater sound and reference to “voices in the trees,” as well as the slow-paced “The Only Way,” accented with 1980s-style keyboard flourishes (also courtesy of Smith). “Make the Pain Go Away” is a gentle acoustic tune that would not sound out of place on a Jack Johnson album, while “Needle and Thread” has a mellow jam band feel.
However, Brad can also rock out. “A Reason To Be In My Skin” has a steady rhythm guitar sound reminiscent of Gossard’s other band, and “Diamond Blues” features a heavy beat from drummer Regan Hagar (of Satchel) and a shout-along chorus featuring lots of “yeah yeah yeahs.” In addition, “Tea Bag” has a grimy, punky feel that harkens back to Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy days, with poppy background vocals straight out of Stone Temple Pilots country.
Frankly, Brad is catchy as hell, and all four musicians (including bassist Keith Lowe, a crack session player) display a high level of talent. But as you might expect from a side project that has had long stretches of inactivity during its 20-year-run, it’s hard to pinpoint a definitive Brad sound. To Gossard’s credit, he does not overpower the group and despite obvious Pearl Jam influences on some songs, Brad is hardly a Pearl Jam clone. Yet most Brad songs immediately make you think of other bands (as evidenced by my review of them).
This is not necessarily a bad thing, but prevents Brad from taking on a strong identity. If they want to move beyond being a talented band who can churn out some enjoyable songs to being a band with real impact on the industry and on listeners, they will need to spend some more time together crafting their own unique sound.