James Iha
Let It Come Down

On his first solo release, Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha eschews his band's more wrenching form of heart surgery in favor of the tender Neil Young-style ballads that are often washed down with whiskey and tears. Iha's earnest songwriting and singing will no doubt sweep some listeners up in a whirlwind of emotion while leaving others retching from too much sugar.

Produced by Iha and Jim Scott (Tom Petty, Whiskeytown) and recorded in the guitarist's basement home studio in Chicago, Let It Come Down does a great job of conveying the process of someone spilling his soul. These eleven open-hearted pop compositions gently rock and sway (Iha plays acoustic and electric guitars, plus bass), oozing the promise of romantic faith and redemption, but Iha's shy voice and fragile singing style don't always match the emotional tone he seeks. Guest artists such as friends Nina Gordon (Veruca Salt) and Matt Walker (Pumpkins sideman, Cupcakes), lap-steel guitarist and studio vet Greg Leisz (Victoria Williams, Matthew Sweet), and two of Iha's business partners in the Scratchie Records label, Pumpkins bassist D'Arcy and Adam Schlesinger (Fountains of Wayne, Ivy), provide a supportive framework.

In following his heart, Iha has embraced the dewy-eyed despair and optimistic rhapsodizing that virtually every pop group in history has utilized at some point, complete with stock imagery such as angels, stars, holding someone tight, and two hearts beating as one. His lyrics are cliched in some respects and refreshingly honest and penetrating in others. The music -- always lovely -- runs from quaint to wonderful.

The clanging guitar of "Beauty" and the dreamy but familiar "Country Girl" are charming, but the rest of the album's first half is devoted to sweet, nonthreatening meditations that are pretty but unremarkable. The second half offers deeper rewards. The warm harmonies of "Lover, Lover" and the woozy slide guitar and swooning arrangement of "Silver String" make for a fine back-to-back pairing, and the shimmer of the gently tapped cymbals in "Winter" complements a string arrangement that's alternately strident and lush.

Though Iha has made no original moves here, Let It Come Down is pretty much what it aspires to be -- a clear, nice-sounding expression of one man's take on love. It's perfect for that reflective wee-hours drive down memory lane or for any time spent pining away alone, with only the light of the dashboard or the voice on the stereo to keep you company.

-- Robin Myrick

Joey Baron
Down Home

On Down Home, hotshot drummer Joey Baron has assembled an impressive quartet, a supergroup that also features bassist Ron Carter, guitarist Bill Frisell, and saxophonist Arthur Blythe. On paper such a dream team figures to blow away the current contemporary-jazz competition. After all, this is the genre in which youngbloods and old lions have been flooding the market with quiet-storm dreck, a place where Kenny G rules the charts, Herbie Hancock covers tunes by Don Henley and Sting, and McCoy Tyner collaborates with Burt Bacharach. In other words, a genre long overdue for a shakeup, and Baron's group seemed to be the men for the job. But instead of cutting the crap, they've simply added to it.

Competent at best and ponderous at worst, Down Home registers as a major disappointment. The disc's eight songs, all written by Baron, don't pulse with passion or crackle with imagination. Full of generic contempo jazz grooves and arrangements to match, the material feels cliched and compromised. "Mighty Fine," the opener, sets a meek, mild tone that goes unchallenged throughout much of the disc, with many of the tracks coming off like supper-club fodder. The funky "What" is an exception, with Frisell playing a sinewy lead and Blythe blowing gamely, but ultimately it's nothing Maceo Parker hasn't already done, and done a lot better.

It's baffling why Baron didn't present this outfit with more rewarding and provocative material. Because the songs are so weak, the musicians (especially Blythe) perform at levels far below their capabilities. With the exception of Frisell's signature tone and occasional sidelong riff, the playing is nondescript. In fact, no one seems inspired enough to step forward and make a memorable gesture. As a result Down Home collapses under the crushing weight of its own mediocrity.

-- John Lewis

Black Grape
Stupid Stupid Stupid

After hearing Black Grape's 1995 debut, It's Great When You're Straight ... Yeah!, many doubted if singer-songwriter Shaun Ryder could harness his chemical-crazed thoughts to produce a second CD. It did take him more than two years. The result is Stupid Stupid Stupid, a witty, ten-track synth-rock conglomeration that comprises drum and bass, jungle, rap, and funk.

Ryder's first band, the Happy Mondays, was a group of English rowdies that was part of the late-Eighties Manchester sound popular over there with ravers and over here with clubgoers. On Stupid, in addition to Ryder, Black Grape includes vocalists-rappers Paul "Kermit" Leveridge and Carl "Psycho" McCarthy (both recently departed from the band), guitarist Paul "Wags" Wagstaff, percussionist Ged Lynch, and Danny Saber, who handles programming duties and fills in on everything from bass to sitar. Saber also co-wrote all of the songs with Ryder.

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