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Solo Man Guitarist James Iha Explores Life Outside the Pumpkin patch
December 18, 1997, 11:00 pm

Source: Chicago Tribune

Greg Kot.. Chicago Tribune. Chicago, Ill.: Dec 19, 1997. pg. 52

Guitarist James Iha has been quietly stepping up in the Smashing Pumpkins' songwriting hierarchy in recent years. The Pumpkins are primarily an outlet for Billy Corgan's tunes, but Iha's music -- though mostly confined to B-sides -- has glimmered with promise in rarities such as "Blew Away" and "Said Sadly."

That songwriting talent finally has a forum all to itself on "Let It Come Down," Iha's first solo album, due Feb. 10 on Virgin Records. Those who saw the Pumpkins at the Aragon a few weeks ago as opening act for Jane's Addiction might be surprised by the tone of Iha's disc. At the Aragon, Iha was the man in the middle of a maelstrom, his incisive guitar fills and slash-and-burn solos raising the stakes on every song. But "Let It Come Down" is a gentle morning-after album that establishes Iha's gift for writing economical, understated pop songs.

"It is a bit of a reaction from touring with the Pumpkins for the last, oh, eight years, and every night playing these super-heavy, saturated rock guitars," Iha says with a laugh. "So the last thing I wanted to do is make an album in front of a Marshall stack."

When Iha retreated to his basement studio last summer during a break from Pumpkins business, he set about fleshing out the songs he had written, mostly on acoustic guitars, with a few trusted collaborators, like the sibling rhythm section of drummer Matt Walker and bassist Solomon Snyder. But at the core of the album is an undeniable intimacy: a voice, a guitar and a melody to hum away the day.

"The sound of love is oceans far away," Iha sings on "Sound of Love," and one can practically picture the guitarist on an unmade bed, hunched over a guitar in some nameless hotel in some forgotten city on some endless tour, his mind focused on a pair of eyes a thousand miles away.

He cites some unexpected reference points for achieving this tone: "I listen to the early records by the Band . . . they sound so natural and organic. It's about good songs, good playing, in an understated way.

"At some point, I had to make a decision: I could practice more and become a really great guitar player or I could work on writing better songs. There are only so many hours in the day, and I found writing songs more fulfilling than working on becoming this virtuoso guitar player."

Though Iha's gift for the memorable riff or fill, the little sonic forget-me-not that can elevate a song, is apparent, "Let It Come Down" isn't about solos or flash. It's the songs that resonate, and the surprising resilience in Iha's voice, which evokes the conversational warmth of such '70s singer-songwriters as Al Stewart, David Gates and Cat Stevens. Fleshed out with cello, pedal steel and backing harmonies, "Let It Come Down" doesn't sound quite like any other rock album in recent months.

Pumpkin seeds

The Smashing Pumpkins remain in Los Angeles wrapping up sessions for a new self-produced studio album, which is tentatively scheduled for release in the spring. With the departure of Matt Walker, who quit to devote more time to his band the Cupcakes, the Pumpkins brought in Matt Cameron to drum on some tracks, but the Soundgarden alum will not be joining the group.

Credit: Greg Kot