James Iha

Sharps & Flats is a daily music review in Salon Magazine

By Natasha Stovall

Published March 11, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

There's something radical about James Iha's quest for the perfect pop expression of love. As calmly as he may play it on MTV and in the papers, "Let It Come Down" is an unsubtle repudiation of Billy Corgan's Sturm und Drang. Iha's solo debut is more than just a change of pace for the Smashing Pumpkins guitarist; it's a vent for his essential sunniness, which in its own happy way diametrically opposes a worldview like Corgan's. Where Corgan strains under the weight of past wounds and global chaos, Iha notes that the glass is half full and moves on, writing generous and insightful songs to and about his girlfriend, even as things fall apart. If Corgan's voice of youth at loose ends is a clarion call, knocking the established order to its feet, then Iha's studiously crafted love songs are the unexpected coup that sneaks up on the conquerors, ferreting their spoils out the back door.

Of course, none of this would mean a good goddamn if Iha's songs weren't plain great. The fact that the severe-looking guitar player who models in Milan on his days off actually has a heart of gold and a soft spot for Bacharach would be novel, but not especially noteworthy, if "Let It Come Down" wasn't a truly catchy platter. But it is. Iha has everything a good songwriter needs: nuance, sensitivity, nice words, an ear for melody, a sense of structure and that sixth sense for conceiving tunes impossible to get out of one's head. He makes "Let It Come Down" as lush as his love-filled heart, full to the brim with soul guitars, smooth strings and plaintive organs buoyed by hooky, cha-cha rhythms. Iha holds nothing back: not his effusive amorous declarations or his shimmying vocal "ooh oohs" and "bap bap mmm hmmms" or the instrumentation he calls in to accompany them.

Iha's stepped in that love shit, deep -- he's probably still wiping it off his platforms. "Hallelujah! I'm in love with a girl from the country, she's got no money, just a smile," he sings on "Country Girl," so swept up his voice slips into an ecstatic falsetto. It's a flawed love, of course, like all of them. "Your love, it takes a little faith, and I know we can make it all work out," he hopes on "Sound of Love," but his girlfriend is needy, made insecure by a nebulously difficult past. "Hey now, you never want to be alone, you never want to be apart from me, on your own," he frets on "Jealousy." "You've been lost for so long, dear, and now your worries, they all come clear." He doesn't let the minutiae of crumbling love get him down, though. "Jealousy" is his crowning achievement, a perfect nugget of glittery pop with guitars fingerpoppin' and Iha crooning his little heart out, cheered by the transcendent joy of a well-put-together love song. Through thick and thin, it's all he really needs to feel good. Take that, Billy Corgan.

Natasha Stovall

Natasha Stovall is a regular contributor to Salon.

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