It is very difficult not to respect Robert Bradley’s rise to success. After more than 20 years as a blind street musician, he was discovered by a Detroit rock trio who overheard him singing outside while they were recording in a nearby studio. With the band’s resources and Bradley’s soulful voice the unlikely quartet found themselves with a record deal from industry giant RCA.
The band blended blues and soul with modern rock on 1996’s Blackwater Surprise and 2000’s Time to Discover before leaving RCA in favor of their new label, Vanguard.
New Ground marks Bradley’s third studio album, and his first on Vanguard Records, an earthier, folkier label than his previous. It might have been expected that the band would move in the direction of blues with the influence of this new label. Instead, lackluster production and a new soft rock sound drown out Bradley’s rich voice.
Gone from this album are the bluesy blends of garage rock and R&B that once defined Blackwater Surprise. Gone are the street musician lyrics that once gave Blackwater Surprise a refreshingly authentic sound. Gone are the goosebump-inciting climaxes pierced by the raspy wisdom of Bradley’s classic voice.
On New Ground, Bradley’s soul is unable to transcend the drab, rather boring new material. And though his story demonstrates the power of his love of music, it is impossible to get past the fact that the music on this album is mediocre at best.
The album has its good points. There is “Exist for Love,” a soul-filled gospel ballad, and “Young Girls,” which is reminiscent of the band’s older material. Songs like these are what the band does best, and what the band should stick to playing.
New Ground borrows from numerous sects within the genre of mid-90’s alternative rock but, despite the implications of the album’s title, fails to deliver any musical progress for the band. The opening track, “Train,” emulates the melodramatic melodies of the Wallflowers, while “Profile,” is at best a faulty imitation of Lenny Kravitz. The album closes with a tribute to the red, white, and blue in the form of the song, “Born in America.” In addition to following a trend that is beginning to verge on insincerity, this closing track is musically uninteresting, and serves as a weak finale.
Unnecessary background vocals make several tracks, such as “Feel the Fire” and “Night Life” all too ready for airplay on easy listening stations in dentist’s offices across the nation.
Rather than exploring the alternative rock roots of the three incidental members of Robert Bradley’s Blackwater Surprise, the band should have continued in their exploration of Bradley’s soul.