The problem with side projects is that, even when they’re good, you tend to have to wait a while for new material from them because their needs have to fit in around the day jobs of the people involved. So to get a second Brad album in three years is pretty good going, especially as United We Stand is another great collection of mature and impressive rock music.
Like most people, I got into Brad because of Stone Gossard‘s participation, based on the assumption that anything he was involved with would be good. It was a good assumption, but, like most people, I soon realised that the reason Brad are a great band is Shawn Smith. Gossard’s a sublime songwriter and guitarist, but Smith’s vocals lift this band beyond being a Pearl Jam offshoot, and United We Stand is another example of why there’s those of us who will buy everything he’s involved with.
Firstly, I should point out that while Best Friends? did come out in 2010, it was actually recorded seven years earlier, so this is the first collection of newly-recorded Brad music in almost a decade. To be honest though, there’s no major stylistic shift between the two, and no major political agenda, despite the provocative title and album cover. They haven’t turned into Rage Against The Machine or anything, and the album is the usual mix of mellow, soulful tracks and more urgent rock songs.
Diamond Blues and Tea Bag bring out the louder side, with the latter having Gossard’s trademark guitar sound all over it, but while these are all pretty good, Smith’s vocals tend to sound at their best when he’s in a looser groove, like on anthemic opening track Miles Of Rope, which gets things off to a fantastic start. Bound In Time is also classic Shawn Smith, with a frantic-but-restrained drumbeat driving things on while he goes at his own pace in the foreground, and it’s actually quite similar in tone to the awesome solo track Love And Riots, which he released last year. It’s different enough to be worthwhile though.
The best track on United We Stand is one of the poppier numbers, the lovely A Reason To Be In My Skin, which features the tender and affectionate chorus: “Your soul is beautiful, your heart shines bright. Your touch is electric. Your mind is sharp, your face is art. I’m lost in your scent.” That’s exactly the kind of song that makes Brad something to treasure, and The Only Way is another highlight along the same lines, particularly because of its tinkly piano. This album won’t sell as many copies as the next one Pearl Jam bring out, but those who do pick it up will have a rare treat on their hands. Like me, they might come for Stone Gossard, but they’ll stay for Shawn Smith.
Sometimes, success comes at the price of creativity and quality. Santana had been in the wilderness for so long when crossover collaborative album Supernatural catapulted them back into the spotlight, that it was hardly a surprise that they tried to replicate the formula. However, the returns were ever diminishing, so it's a welcome surprise that new album Shape Shifter strips it all back. Way back.