Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Down Time

A Smashing Pumpkin goes solo.

By Stephanie Zacharek

FEBRUARY 23, 1998:  From where we stand now, some seven years -- if you believe the title of that documentary -- after punk finally broke, it seems that the rock world has finally caught on to irony. Ironic this, ironic that: it's never a good idea to look at anything straight-ahead. Better to cast a sidelong glance at all the things -- love, honesty, loyalty -- that just might matter. Better to paper over the gaps in your intelligence by sniffing out irony everywhere, even where it doesn't exist. Better to smirk, just in case anybody's looking. But don't, whatever you do, even think about coming off as sincere. Unless you're being ironically sincere, which is perfectly acceptable.

In these ironic times, a pretty, gently sculpted, unfailingly (and genuinely) sincere release like James Iha's Let It Come Down (Virgin) is simply cruising for a bruising. What did this album do to deserve the nasty notices it received from Spin and Rolling Stone? If you believe those reviews, Iha's voice is thin, his lyrics suck. He gets one bonus point for coming from a band -- Smashing Pumpkins -- who've seen their share of personal heartbreak and suffering. Otherwise he should stay off to the side, tucked safely behind the splendor of Billy Corgan's voluminous robes.

The truth is, Let It Come Down isn't adventurous, innovative, or kick-ass; it isn't a record for the ages. But it's weirdly affecting, precisely because it's so heartfelt and so unassuming. This isn't a case of reviewing good intentions: as a side musician, guitarist Iha is too cool-looking, too clearly self-assured, to need anybody's charity vote, least of all mine. And because of his killer good looks and ultrahipness, I expected -- unfairly, I admit -- his CD to be loaded with attitude. Its straightforwardness was a refreshing surprise.

Even if the lyrics don't shine in the originality or cleverness department ("Love will carry me over land to the sea/Take me far away to the home where I'll stay"), what saves them is that they don't sound churned out. Iha, in his pleasantly reedy, slightly burnished voice, sings as if he meant them. He has such a great feel for lush, romantic pop -- often centered on delicate guitar motifs and ruffly organ filigree (from Ivy's Adam Schlesinger) -- that it's obvious he rushed into these songs headlong. Sure, the prudent thing would have been to hire a lyricist to give verbal ballast to his lustrous melodies -- but since when is good pop music ever about prudence? Iha's willingness to go for broke is the thing that makes Let It Come Down work. Had he sounded more tentative, more apologetic for his shortcomings as a songwriter and singer, the CD might have been insufferable.

The music of Let It Come Down is so carefully wrought that it's a pleasure to listen to -- it's a spare, simple recording made with great care, if not with a lot of flash and showy artistry. "Sound of Love" is a delicately shaded midtempo ballad built around supple country-inflected guitar and restrained keyboard flourishes. "Winter" shifts moods and textures, breezing by the way clouds drift across a moonlit sky. Floating on a current of cello, the song at times conjures the shimmery intensity of parts of Brian Eno's Another Green World. "Jealousy," driven by chunky guitar rhythms, is so catchy it almost sounds like something by Hanson: you might not want a whole CD of the stuff, but it gives Let It Come Down a little jolt of energy.

Now and then there's a lyric that might stop you cold: "Hallelujah, I'm in love with a girl from the country/She's got no money, just her smile," Iha sings on "Country Girl," and I almost cringe. Yet there's something so disarming and innocent about his willingness to commit such lyrics to a CD. He sings with such confidence in his own feelings that they're not embarrassing at all. Maybe part of what's so sweet about Let It Come Down is that Iha doesn't seem to care a whit about playing the suave rock dude, even though that's the role most of us would gladly have envisioned for him. Without even knowing it, he's made the ultimate hipster statement -- simply by meaning every word.


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