It’s been a long time since former Smashing Pumpkin James Iha has had a solo record. His debut, 1998’s “Let It Come Down,” came out when the guitar player was still the hopeless romantic lost somewhere among Billy Corgan’s clouds. While Corgan would release his most personal record with the Pumpkins “Adore” a few months later, its 16 tracks found no room for Iha’s sunny acoustic guitar pop, and if you heard “Let It Come Down,” it was for the better.
Having long departed from the group and having spent time in A Perfect Circle and the dreadful supergroup Tinted Windows, Iha is back with his sophomore record “Look to the Sky” which from the sound of new single “To Who Knows Where” might be a much better outing. As usual, Iha’s honey-dipped yawn isn’t his best asset but the track’s focus is mainly on his strengths. It was always difficult to pick out what guitars were his on Pumpkins records especially since a great deal of them were Corgan, but if your ear ever found itself caught on high-fretted Leslie effected leads or some jangly acoustic backing, typically it could be attributed to him. “To Who Knows Where” has that in spades and hearing it backdropping yet another “Man Who Fell to Earth” tribute is fitting if not wholly original. It should also be noted that this song is marginally better than any Smashing Pumpkins song made since Corgan revived the group with new members in 2006.
James Iha — “To Who Knows Where”
But what about those Pumpkins years? Iha’s contributions were sparse and not always very good, but he did add a little bit of variety to the Corgan buffet. While the songs he penned himself could dip heavily into sap, the “lady jams” of the Smashing Pumpkins catalog, he did have a few tricks up his sleeve and maybe one or two songs that should have found their way on a record as opposed to banishment as singles and internet downloads.
Here are James Iha’s five best songwriting contributions to the Smashing Pumpkins.
Billy Corgan has famously downplayed the other members’ contributions in the years after their initial 2000 demise, but for the egotistical frontman to have gone so far as to share a songwriting credit means that the role of the co-writer must have been essential. Even if the songwriting situation was as Corgan claimed, that Iha wrote only the chords to “Soma”‘s intro, the gorgeous set of arpeggios form the basis of the song which is one of the band’s finest moments.
Iha’s other lasting contribution to “Siamese Dream,” a record that is believed to have been mostly recorded by Corgan, has also been the subject of denouncement by its singer in terms of who its true writer is. “[Iha] gets a lot of credit, probably undue…because his name is on the credit but I wrote the song.” There is some credence to this claim as there is a much-circulated demo of “Mayonaise” that features just Corgan on acoustic guitar (part of which finds its way into the finalized song), but the full punch of the tune as well as its late-afternoon stroll of an intro has a lot to do with Iha’s placement in the song.
The only completely James Iha-penned song to make it to a (retail) record is “Take Me Down,” the drowsy lullabye that closes out disc one of “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.” Iha had actually recorded at least four more of his tunes for the record, all of which were regulated to B-sides. Truthfully, most of them belonged there, with the exception of this spirited pop-rocker from the “1979” single. Lyrically another cheery ode to new-found love a la The Cure’s “High” or “Friday I’m in Love,” the song has a sunny and uptempo jangle that is irresistibly catchy. The dynamics between the band are also some of their most intimate, with each sound being able to be plucked out. It’s very possible Corgan may not be present on the track but “The Boy” may be the closest the Smashing Pumpkins have sounded to a little garage band rather than a rock & roll behemoth.
“Adore,” which probably would have been better suited with the title of the band’s double-disc magnum opus, was dominated content-wise with echoes of Billy Corgan’s mother’s death, so needless to say this sunny little acoustic number from Iha was yet again barred from participation. Previous rejects like “Blew Away” and “Believe” reeked of over-sentimentality but “Summer” manages to stay restrained in its pleasantness, making for a nice, momentary diversion from the gloom of its parent record.
As James Iha matured as a songwriter, it would have been great to hear how his work would have sounded through the Smashing Pumpkins filter; but considering the direction Billy Corgan took the group when he ressurected the name for “Zeitgeist” in 2007, it was better that sleeping dogs remained lying. “Go” was James Iha’s last song for the band which was featured on “MACHINA II/The Friends and Enemies of Modern Music,” released as a free download in the fall of 2000 (seven years before “In Rainbows”). The song may very well be Iha’s best-penned song Smashing Pumpkins song, more complete than any of his previous efforts and sounding as if it were actually recorded in the studio with the other songs as opposed to being a pet-project from Iha’s apartment.
Since the Pumpkins’ demise Iha has kept himself busy as a sideman in other projects but he is capable of holding up the spotlight onto himself here and there without being crushed. “Look to the Sky” will be out on EMI September 18, though it’s been out in Japan since March. Perhaps there’s a Japanese review we could get our hands on to find out if he holds his ground.