Music

James Iha: Look to the Sky

James Iha waited 14 years to release his sophomore solo record, and it's become an unnexpected surprise.


James Iha

Look to the Sky

Label: The End
US Release Date: 2012-09-18
UK Release Date: 2012-09-24
Label website
Artist website
Amazon
iTunes

When James Iha released his solo debut in 1998 entitled Let It Come Down, most Pumpkins fans (of whom the majority of his audience was comprised) were expecting it to come down—but in that fun altnerna-rock kind of way. Many anticipated a more precise and focused sound that the Pumpkins (at the time in the height of their popularity) were famous for. Instead it all came down in a completely separate and more confounding manner. Who was this oddly quirky and soulful singer singing border-line country ditties, with rarely an electric guitar to be found anywhere on the record? The album was confusingly hypnotic, but not entirely in a good way—almost as if at times you want to rip your ears off, but kept delaying because you were enticed enough to continue listening.

At the time that Come Down was released, the internet had yet to restructure the musical landscape, and the soon to be popularized sound of acoustic soul had yet to emerge—bands like Iron & Wine and Stars had yet to be discovered. Little did we know just how far ahead of his time Iha was? An album that sounded out-of-place in 1998 would fit perfectly into today's musical landscape. And yet, it took Iha more than 14 years to release a follow-up. In between, Iha left the Pumpkins rather unceremoniously (as per reports from Corgan), joined A Perfect Circle, began producing albums for other acts, scored a bunch of films, guest appeared on a variety of other records, and all the while recording material for his long awaited (is that the word? Was it "awaited"?) follow-up. For reasons unknown, Iha embarked on a different promotional gamut by releasing Look to the Sky in Japan before making the trek across the ocean to the North American market. A move that may have helped ease the more conventional music listening public in America warm up to his soft crooner style. Well, no such cushion was needed on such a fittingly romantic and pleasing record.

Look to the Sky begins with a soft plucking of an acoustic guitar lightly accented by a Rhodes as James sings: "You rush in with stars in your hair / You cast your spell and float through the air". "Make Believe" sets the tone for a perfectly crafted mellow and romantic album that shouldn't be completely unexpected, but somehow is. Remarkably, Iha's lyrics, which will sound shrill and silly to the ears of pretentious hipsters that take their music far too seriously, is lightly accented with simple rhyme structures—as they are meant to be set to such almost fragile music. After suffering through the tumult and angst of the '90s where poeticism reigns supreme, there is a grace in being able to say something eloquently, with childlike precision. There's no need to overplay it, and Iha manages to convey his emotions with a straightforward exchange. Sometimes, expression doesn't need to be wrapped in impossibly idiotic and overly needless complicated trite. Sometimes, you can simply say: "I love you", or something to that effect. That is what Iha manages to do with Look to the Sky.

The album is that rare instance when lyrics can't be logistically separated from the atmosphere of the musical accompaniment. They exist within each other, accenting one another in such a way that one without the other wouldn't make quite a lot of sense. It's something that many singer/songwriters aspire to, and most fail to accomplish. In the fourteen years between Let It Come Down and Look to the Sky, you get the distinct impression that Iha has spent his time observing and learning and honing his craft to create a symbiotic album melding melody, music and lyric into one cohesive whole. The apt title Look to the Sky, says it all—the album is best listened to with headphones in the middle of the night staring at the sky. Not to imply that this scenario is the only way one can enjoy the album, but it does serve for the optimal listening experience. And with so many rushes through music and disposability, it’s refreshing to come across a record that isn't afraid to soften the tone, slow the pace, and emanate love.

Beyond the sometimes impossibly serene tunes like "Dream Tonight" or "Dark Star" exists the one sore thumb and misstep on this record—it's actually the precise reason why this album isn't rated a 9. "Appetite" comes right smack dab in the middle with it's augmented chord structure, abrasive drum beat, and jazz infused hard piano playing. It sticks out like crazy and really has no place in such a warm collection of tunes. It's a little confounding to try and think why James felt it necessary for its inclusion here, especially given its sonic discord from the rest of the album. However, clocking in at 14 tracks with a running time of just under an hour, skipping this track doesn't leave a hole in the rest of this beautiful and calming record from a man who's roots started in a band whose sole purpose was to provoke and unnerve.

8

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less
6

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image