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Music Review: James Iha – Look to the Sky

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Fourteen years between solo records for former Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha is quite a long time, but the man has kept himself extremely busy since his first one, 1998’s Let It Come Down. Since that time, he finished his duties with SP (through the year 2000), recorded/toured with supergroups like A Perfect Circle and Tinted Windows, and has collaborated with/remixed for the likes of Fountains of Wayne, Ladytron, Isobel Campbell, The Sounds, and Vanessa and the O’s, among others.

Perhaps unknown to many, he also scored indie films Linda Linda Linda in 2005 and co-owns the Stratosphere Sound recording studio in New York City along with Adam Schlesinger (FofW/Ivy) and Andy Chase (Ivy/Brookville/Paco). Needless to say, the dude wasn’t exactly twiddling his thumbs at home all these years and just watching royalty checks come in from his time in the Pumpkins (which he was with from 1987 to December 2000, when the band initially broke up).

His long-awaited sophomore solo album, Look to the Sky, hits stores in America on September 18. It first came out on the EMI Japan label back in March (where Let It Come Down was also re-released back in February with bonus tracks previously avaialable as b-sides). The track “New Year’s Day” is exclusive to this upcoming U.S. release, but two cuts from the Japanese version are actually listed as bonus tracks for the American version, “4th of July” and “Dark Star.” (Interestingly, bonus tracks “Diamond Eyes” and “Stay Lost” from the Japanese edition won’t make the U.S. version.)

While Iha’s 1998 debut had the commonality of all songs being acoustic-based pop rock, with elements of country and folk mixed in, this new effort sees the ex-Pumpkins guitarist branch out and take in a myriad of other influences in addition to those aforementioned elements. There’s the catchy synth pop track “Summer Days” and the shoegaze/psychedelic lead single, “To Who Knows Where,” for starters. Both are album highlights, with the latter featuring guest vocals by Sara Quin of popular indie pop group Tegan and Sara—she also guests on the dreamy and lovely “Dream Tonight.”

“Speed of Love” could be seen as the successor to the pretty and delicate Let It Come Down acoustic pop rock track “Sound of Love,” only this one has a dance-heavy beat and an effects-laced electric guitar solo. The appearance of mildly loud electric guitars – which weren’t present on LICD – can also be found on “Gemini,” a good, up-beat tambourine-aided tune that somewhat recalls “The Boy,” an Iha-penned gem that first appeared as a b-side to SP’s “1979” CD single. (Remember CD singles?) 

The strangest cut on the album is the slow, vocally sleepy and semi-bluesy romp of “Appetite.” It features legendary Television frontman/guitarist Tom Verlaine noodling around on guitar, but virtuoso pianist Mike Garson (David Bowie, Smashing Pumpkins, Nine Inch Nails) is the star of this track, with his trademark crazy avante-garde/jazz piano runs. It’s not quite a highlight, but it is fun and a treat to hear those two excellent musicians jam together, even if Verlaine’s guitar solo isn’t all in key near its end and in time with what the rest of the band is doing. Maybe that was on purpose though, with him trying to get a little crazy like Garson. 

Many other notable musicians guest on this record, including FofW’s Adam Schlesinger (who also played piano and bass on LICD), Antony & The Johnsons, Karen O and Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and Nathan Larson (ex-Shudder To Think), who also co-produced the album with Iha and co-wrote “Summer Days.”

The only issue to be had with Iha’s new LP is that his limited vocal range and especially soft vocal delivery can make for some of the quieter material, like the Velvet Underground-ish “A String of Words” and the country-leaning bonus track “4th of July” sound too sleepy, where an otherwise stronger singer/lyricist (like Lou Reed) would make a more noticeable impact.   

While LICD certainly had its moments (“Be Strong Now,” “Winter,” and “Sound of Love”), its constant stream of mellow acoustic pop-minded love songs got a little tiresome by album’s end and thus was a few more memorable songs away from being a strong debut. Look to the Sky is a much richer and musically diverse album, and definitely worth the long wait.

Who knows how long it will take for Mr. Iha to record another solo LP, but if you ever dug the gentle, acoustic-based/pop rock songs he did with the Pumpkins (however few in number they were) and on his first album, you’ll definitely warm up to much of this new album, including the electronic-aided material. After all, this is the same James Iha who wrote the amusing and much loved synth pop ode to his dog “Bugg Superstar” over 18 years ago—it was one of the first, if not the very first solely penned Iha songs SP fans ever heard. Not that there’s anything wrong with it, but let’s just say he’s come a long way (songwriting-wise) since then.

Look to the Sky will be out tomorrow in the States via Brooklyn indie label The End Records and will be availalbe to buy in many stores and online where popular music is sold. For upcoming tour dates, videos and all other things James Iha, visit his official site.

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About Charlie Doherty

Copy editor/content writer for Penn Multimedia; print/web journalist/freelancer, formerly for Boston Examiner, EMSI, Demand Media, Brookline TAB, Suite 101 and Helium.com; co-head sports editor & asst. music editor at Blogcritics Magazine; Media Nation independent newspaper staff writer, printed/published by the Boston Globe at 2004 DNC (Boston, MA); Featured in Guitar World May 2014. See me on twitter.com/chucko33, myspace.com/charlied, & Facebook.
  • http://www.lunch.com/JSMaresca-Reviews-1-1.html Dr. Joseph S. Maresca

    Great music!

  • Charlie Doherty

    Indeed it is. Thanks for the comment, Joseph!