James Iha – Look to the Sky

In the original incarnation of The Smashing Pumpkins, James Iha was famous for tucking soft rock gems away on b-sides. The songs didn’t sound very much like the ‘Pumpkins but were always enjoyable side diversions. Remember “Blew Away” or “Believe” from the Pisces Iscariot and The Aeroplane Flies High…b-side / rarities compilations? Songs that hinted at an alternate version of The Smashing Pumpkins – sun-kissed country vibes, cousins of Neil Young at his most laid back. James Iha finally released a very strong debut album in 1998 entitled Let It Come Down. The strengths of the stray ‘Pumpkins songs that Iha had penned had only hinted at what the debut album would offer. It was an easy-going record, reminiscent of the soft rock masterpieces from America in the early 70’s. The world seemed ready for Iha to launch a full-fledged solo career and so…nothing happened on the solo front for years.

After The Smashing Pumpkins disbanded in 2000 he pursued owning a record label and recording studio with members of Ivy and Fountains of Wayne. He also joined Tool offshoot band A Perfect Circle, and was a member of the indie supergroup Tinted Windows (along with members of Hanson, Fountains of Wayne, and Cheap Trick). It was somewhat maddening to me – why the heck hadn’t he followed up Let It Come Down? In early 2012 – almost 14 years after his debut – little pieces of information began to be released about a new James Iha record. The album itself was released in Japan earlier this year and finally made its way to the United States earlier this month. I’ve had some time to absorb it (in its import version – I’m a reformed hipster after all) and have to say – this is a gem of a record. It varies from the older material in an eclectic fashion – it retains some country charm but also throws in sound experiments and harsher guitar.

We’re in a dream…(selected highlights) 

Make Believe – The album starts off with a track that recalls his earlier acoustic based work. Is that damning praise? I don’t think so – it perfectly encapsulates some of Iha’s strengths and gives us a song that doesn’t completely betray what waits for us within the album. It DOES, however, remind the listener of what they’ve been missing. Epic orchestration and subtle backing vocals by Nina Persson of The Cardigans fame. Key lyrics:

Look to the sky there’s a thousand stars
You’re moving so fast, you’re never that far
Wait for you under the moonlight
The morning comes and I’ll never know why

Gemini – starts off as an acoustic lament before slightly edgier guitar comes in, reminding me of his work with The Smashing Pumpkins. Falsetto vocals during the chorus really take this track into another level of perfection. Key lyrics:

I hear music from another time
and the present seems to disappear
You can’t say no, you can’t deny,
you will never feel this way again

Appetite – very much unlike anything I’ve heard from James Iha before. Low register vocals, swirling organ, and a bluesy vibe. Seems to be his version of the John Lennon classic “How Do You Sleep”. Are these barbs at his former bandmate in The Smashing Pumpkins? For his part, James Iha takes the high road, but you do have to wonder. Key lyrics:

If no one cares
Go on a tear
You stamp your feet until they can’t ignore
A bitter cup
Fill it up

Waves – A hypnotic track featuring guest vocals by Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Very mellow, with the spoken / sung words taking on a chant like feel. Bass anchors the track down, with electronic flourishes adding to the atmosphere. The song’s last 40 seconds or so take the listener on a breathtaking coda of sound. Key lyrics:

Waves wash over me, drag me out to sea,
the tide pulls slowly
Tonight I feel so alone, tonight I wandered far from home
The moon plays tricks on me, guides me safely,
lights wash over me
Tonight I feel so alive, tonight with open eyes

This record may not be everyone’s cup of coffee – if you didn’t like his earlier solo record or work with The Smashing Pumpkins, you may not enjoy this one. Personally? I like it slightly more than the recent album by the reformed ‘Pumpkins. I think the way Iha uses words to connect with the listener can come off as simple poetry at first – dig deeper and you may find the way he works his way around a phrase to be perfection. The more experimental nature of the music really works for James Iha and I’m hopeful that I don’t have to wait 14 more years for the next record!

The Verdict: Look to Iha

For Fans of: Heyward Howkins, Neil Young, The Smashing Pumpkins, Fountains of Wayne, Honeychurch


  1. Make Believe
  2. To Who Knows Where
  3. Gemini
  4. Speed Of Love
  5. Till Next Tuesday
  6. Summer Days
  7. Appetite
  8. Dream Tonight
  9. New Years Day
  10. Waves
  11. A String Of Words
  12. 4th Of July (CD only)
  13. Dark Star (CD only)

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