Reuben James – Champagne Kisses
(Rufio Records – album review by Mark McKergow)
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Vocalist and keyboardist Reuben James presents his debut album, an abundant and smartly-produced collection of jazz-flavoured soul/R&B soaked in richly textured summer vibes.
Birmingham-born James appeared on the international scene a decade ago for his work with singer Sam Smith. He’s used the intervening time to build up a posse of trusted collaborators around the world, and work with top names like Stormzy and James Bay. He’s also developed his vocal chops and production skills which have been honed with EPs and a ‘mixtape’, which have gained him 50 million streams worldwide. This time it’s for real – a debut album of ten tracks released on his own Rufio Records label.
The results are distinctively relaxed and finely-honed. Working with New York producer CARRTOONS, James starts off confidently by namechecking himself in the opening Toast before launching into the title track (and current single). Champagne Kisses flows along with a telling mix of momentum and relaxation. Chicago-based rap poet Ric Wilson arrives for a snappy verse before London singer Joel Culpepper coasts in for some vocal jousting. The string arrangement is heavy and classic, the hook is timeless, and it’s a classic in the making.
None of the ten tracks is over four minutes in length, and some are considerably shorter. It’s typical of James’ generous spirit that contributions from visiting guests are all blended in with the overall production and sound, so we get it all at once. Means The World has fine work from US alto sax virtuoso Braxton Cook and our own Gareth Lockrane on flute, folded in around each other and the lightly grooving sound. It makes for great repeated listening, there’s so much going on and it’s hard to focus on all the detail at once.
This Could Be sees south London’s Conor Albert joining James for the vocal on a spacious soundscape which continually develops with new elements, pauses in the bass line, extra vocals, synthesiser runs and then evolves into a totally new feel at the end. I am more convinced than ever that Reuben James is a kind of Steely Dan for the R&B generation: full-on jazz sensibilities and harmonies running through accessible and engaging music with a very wide audience.
Satisfaction is a particular highlight, with veteran vibesman Roy Ayers joining James, CARRTOONS and East Coaster FONVILLE for an edgy and funky outing. It lasts less than two minutes and could have been extended considerably. The fact that it hasn’t shows Reuben James’ sensibility, economy and sheer generosity.
This generosity extends to the album being freely available on all platforms. Reuben James has a tour in October with six UK dates and a similar number in Europe. It’ll be a party and a half.
Champagne Kisses is released today 23 June 2023