Let It Come Down
I've always questioned the motives of artists who step out from big name bands to release solo albums that sound just like the discs of their big name band – seems more like ego than artistic expression behind such a move. A solo album, it would seem, should be a disc of songs that is 180 degrees away from the "sound" of the artist's regular gig; something that just wouldn't fit.
James Iha, as you might know, is generally known for his work as the guitarist for the Smashing Pumpkins. And this is a CD that truly suits my definition of why an artist should do a solo album. There are no ear-bleeding guitar attacks here or shreiking declarations of angst a la the Pumpkins. Instead, Iha has crafted a gentle, easy listening disc of love songs that remind one more of James Taylor than of Iha's usual gig. There are handclapping tambourines and twining harmonies and even country rock leanings showcased on this CD.
Not that his work on Let It Come Down is entirely without precedent. The laidback approach of his "Take Me Down" from the Pumpkins' Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness set gives a hint at how soft of a touch Iha can have. Most of the tracks on his solo disc, however, are more upbeat than that and sometimes, as in "Country Girl," his slightly nasal vocals hint at John Lennon fandom. Overall, this is a warm disc of guitar pop love songs that Kyle Vincent or Matthew Sweet might have enjoyed putting together.
Produced last summer in Iha's basement studio (named after his dog Bugg), it's the work of a competent, catchy songwriter who melds acoustic and electric guitar lines to create an organic, relaxed sound. There are the occasional string sweeps and piano accompaniment, but this is not an album that lives and breathes by overdubs and studio production. A handful of Chicago musicians helped Iha get the sound he wanted here, including Fountains of Wayne's Adam Schlesinger (piano), members of the Cupcakes (rhythm section), D'arcy (harmony on "One and Two") and Veruca Salt's Nina Gordon (harmony on "Beauty"). The latter song crosses the line between The Byrds jangly guitar sound and Matthew Sweet's more modern (yet still retro) guitar stylings.
"Love is a falling star/shining on you," Iha sings in "Jealousy." It's apparently a star he's well-versed in writing about. Let It Come Down leads one to hope that Iha will step out of Billy Corgan's long Pumpkin shadow more often in the future.
I have to admit at the outset of this review that I've always found Eddie Vedder to have one of the most annoying voices in rock. Whiney, monotonous, growley, unmelodic; most Pearl Jam songs are akin to Chinese water torture for me. So it was with great trepidation that I approached the band's latest disc, Yield. I mean, why would I want to put myself through hours of unpleasantness just to write this quick review?
Well, I did.
And I have to admit, I found more saving graces to Yield than in any prior Pearl Jam disc. Yeah, Vedder still has an unsophisticated throat that seems better suited to barking commands on a noisy shipping dock than singing in a rock band, but occasionally, especially on the frantic opener "Brain of J." and the distortion stomp fest "Do the Evolution," that toneless delivery turns into an asset. While in many ways, the sound remains the same, the band does offer the occasional new trick with Yield. They close the album with an instrumental Greek arms-folded leg-kicker, and there are more introspective tracks here than usual for Pearl Jam — "Wishlist" might have been written by a '70s singer-songwriter like Jackson Browne. In it, Vedder offers a melancholy lover's list of things he "wishes" he was over a smoothly percolating guitar strum: "I wish I was a souvenir you kept your housekey on/I wish I was the pedal break that you depended on," he sings solemnly in one verse.
Overall, Yield leaves the impression of a band kicking back late at night and capturing the slow dissolve of the day with slamming chords and jangling open-ended strums. "What's a boy to do?" Vedder questions in "Faithful" and somehow that line sums this album up. What is Pearl Jam to do now? What more do they have to say? "Just play on" seems to be their current answer. The band grinds through a dozen up-and-down songs on Yield, and has some studio fun with the weird vocal processing of the chorus of "Push Me, Pull Me," not to mention the drop-in of a church choir in the midst of "Do The Evolution" (one of the most light-hearted moments on the disc). "Pilate" seems to throw a grungey nod at their late Soundgarden compatriots and "All Those Yesterdays," a slow bass groove which "officially" ends the album (the unlisted "Greek" instrumental follows), completes the introspective, backwards looking feel of this disc.
In some ways, Pearl Jam sounds at the end of its rope. The electric "newness" of "Jeremy" is history; these songs borrow a lot of guitar stomp from classic rock (there are even a couple guitar nods to Led Zeppelin), and Vedder sounds more tired than fresh through many of these tracks. "I've stopped trying to make a difference" he repeats in "No Way." The result is an album that weaves its own sullen attractions — some of which may have more staying power than the band's work at its brash young popular peak. But in some ways this is a band that has grown stale in a musical genre it created; it may be long past time to turn the page.