BRAD – SHAME (1993)

April 27th, 1993, Brad released their debut album Shame on Epic Records. Rock history is littered with supergroups. Usually, they’re a creative vehicle for members of hugely successful bands to stretch their wings, jarring together dream lineups of musicians in the hopes that musical sparks might fly. These projects vary wildly in quality and intent. More often than not, these offshoots flounder despite the sum of their parts. But on the odd occasion, they produce gold dust. 

BRAD formed in 1992, although the band members had played together for long before that. In many respects, calling Brad a supergroup would be a stretch. Pearl Jam’s Stone Gossard was a major star. Drummer Regan Hagar, formerly of Seattle’s legendary Malfunkshun and later Satchel, was certainly well known in the close-knit Pacific Northwest scene, but beyond that, he remained largely anonymous. Gifted LA bassist Jeremy Toback seemed to arrive fully formed from nowhere, and for years, vocalist/pianist Shawn Smith (later of Satchel) had been held in high regard around the Seattle scene as one of its great young vocalists and writers. 

One thing they had in common was friendship and a deep respect for each other’s talents. In hindsight, Brad was a supergroup; at the time, it was a band of brothers. The intent was pure and simple; they would play and write heartfelt, beautiful, soulful rock without the rockstar bullshit. After forming, Gossard, Toback, Hagar, and Smith set about choosing a name, eventually agreeing to call the band Shame. However, the rights to the name “Shame” were already owned by a musician named Brad Wilson. Instead, the band took the name Brad and called their debut album Shame.

Released six months before Pearl Jam’s Vs. broke sales records and eighteen months after Ten’s staggering success. Brad’s Shame would always struggle to make its voice heard above the colossal din of the Pearl Jam juggernaut. Brad could have joined the nihilistic musical outpourings that were commonplace in 1993, which may have helped them crack a few more sales target barriers. But they ignored that well-populated path and, in doing so, delivered one of the most beautiful and heartfelt rock albums of the ’90s.

Recorded in October 1992 in roughly twenty days at Avast Recording Co. in Seattle, Washington. Many tracks are taken from in-studio jam sessions. The album was produced by the band and mixed by Brendan O’Brien. Shame felt cathartic, relaxed and emotive. It sounds like four extremely talented people shutting out expectations and following their hearts. It draws from a deep well of soul, funk, rock, avant-garde, and singer-songwriter influences. 

Opening with “Buttercup,” a pulsating ballad that values space. The band’s deft touch and ability to play just behind the beat creates a beautiful weight of expectation. Regan Hagar is jazz-like in his approach to drums, whispered and heavy on atmosphere. Stone Gossard drops his electric guitar in at all the right moments. He is never rushed, never overplaying, and is always perfect. Jeremy Toback’s bass augments everything with a gorgeous counter melody and rhythmic pulse. And then there’s Shawn Smith. It’s immediately apparent from Buttercup’s opening lines that he is unique—possessing a voice of rare beauty and piano skills to match.

“My Fingers” bounces with an unmistakable Stone Gossard-type riff and groove; it’s one of the more uptempo tracks on Shame. Shawn Smith’s voice sounds distant and engaging, while the rhythm section makes what is essentially a simple song sound propulsive and vital. “Nadine” benefits significantly from Regan Hagar and Jeremy Taback’s expert rhythm section. Hagar, this time slightly pushing ahead of the beat, which gives the track a dynamic tumbling feel that, in turn, excites the dark minor key progression of the verse. Jeremy Toback adds melodic, funk bass, elevating Shawn Smith’s scat-like vocal.

Shawn Smith said of Jeremy Toback, “The first two records would not be what they are without Jeremy Toback. He was kind of a “pro” bass player with the skills that players from Los Angeles tend to have. No one we knew in Seattle at the time would have brought that flavour, which made the record stand out in a way it might not have with someone else.”

“Screen” is a breathtaking slice of noir soul. Smith’s expressive piano playing takes centre stage, with Toback and Hagar supporting him. Gossard stays out until the chorus, when he does enter, he adds beautifully placed stabs of shimmering, modulated guitar on every downbeat. Smith’s pained falsetto crushes in its beauty and fragility as he sings, “You’ll never know just how dark this screen could be.” Not known for his guitar solos, Gossard delivers a stunning lead that weaves and curls around the beat like smoke.

Toback’s bass playing drives the first single, “20th Century.” Anchored by Stone Gossard’s very Stone-like riff, the song is propelled by Toback’s slap bass, Smith’s ominous vocal, and Hagar’s steady groove. The song became a minor hit in the UK and further set out the band’s stall as something different from the norm.

The album is populated with heartbreaking ballads like “Good News” that show the devastating depth of Shawn Smith’s unique talent. In an era of truly exceptional singers, Smith rose from a region that coughed up more than its fair share of undeniable greats (see Cornell, Staley et al.). Yet Smith’s approach forgoes bombast and histrionics in favour of raw emotion. It also didn’t hurt that he possessed a God-given tone only found among the finest soul singers.

“Raise Love” is another up-tempo cut featuring Stone on slide guitar. His slide playing during the verse is reminiscent of the Pearl Jam track “Deep” from Ten, albeit less aggressive and more funky. The chorus soars as Smith sings,” Raise love, to highlight the world’s dreams, ecstasy and attitude.”

“Bad For The Soul” is a one-minute, ten-second hypnotic funk jam. More an interlude than a full-blown song, it features a heavily slapped bass and almost comic falsetto. “Down” smoulders—a Twin Peaks-style foray into an enveloping darkness. Hypnotically sung, with what seems like improvised lyrical streams of consciousness, it’s an astonishing drift through a stunning soundscape. The band is sympathetic and loose, creating an ever-intensifying atmosphere. 

“Rockstar” is pure satire, with Stone most likely ruminating on his new-found celebrity: “I’m a rockstar-water-walker, Walkin’ on water.” The song is an odd amalgam of funk, heavily affected vocals and interstellar bass sounds; it never drifts from its repetitive pattern. As the song ends, it beautifully segways into the final track, “We.”

Regan Hagar’s drums lead the way, powerfully hit but full of space and feel. He steadies the ship for Shawn Smith’s rolling piano and Toback’s supporting bass. Gossard slowly elaborates on his guitar contributions as the song’s journey unfolds. Smith’s voice glides across the din as he implores, “Go with the honest answer inside. You can tell anyone you find. To rise.” 

To the sound of an old reel-to-reel tape coiling off the spool, the song abruptly ends only to have a heavily affected voice (think the demonic tones of the Evil Dead’s deadites and you’re in the ballpark) shatter the hypnotic beauty of the last song. “Don’t laugh at me, don’t you ever laugh at me”, comes the whispered threat from the bowels of hell. After a demonic cackle, the voice continues, “Oh sure, sure, now it comes out, ‘that’s the last time baby, that’s the last straw.” Bizarre and funny, it’s a memorable way to end an unforgettable album.

Brad’s Shame is an overlooked classic. Much like the far more heralded Temple Of The Dog and Mad Season albums, it showcased a music scene brimming with creativity, ideas, ability and talent. Sales didn’t set the world on fire on its release, and even now, it still hasn’t garnered the respect and mass adulation it so richly deserves. And that’s the real Shame.

Shawn Smith passed away in 2019. If anyone of the era deserved more recognition, it’s him. He left a body of work that was awe-inspiring. Stone Gossard said of Shawn after his passing, “I wish I had a chance to make another record with him. We had many conversations before he passed away about, ‘We’re going to make a new record!’ He was so excited about it. Shawn passed away in his sleep; he died of a heart attack. And I don’t think he wanted to go; he wanted to make more records. We were talking about it. I think about him all the time; he’s present for me all the time.”

Brad went on to make more stunning albums, but the pure vein of music they tapped on their debut album Shame was special—a supergroup in the truest sense. 

Long live Shawn Smith..!!!