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Album Review: Kyle James — ‘Climbing’


When Des Moines-area native Kyle James released his debut solo LP Datum in February last year, I was impressed, but disappointed. Not because the album was anything less than stellar. Across seven delicately composed instrumentals, James showcased everything he presumably learned studying jazz at Western Michigan University over the past four years. Datum served as a testament to James’ maturity and poise as a serious saxophonist, producer and composer.

But after listening through the record the first couple times, I couldn’t help but wonder what happened to the teenage James I remembered from years ago — the dynamic multi-instrumentalist and vocalist I saw tear up 80/35 and the PBR-soaked stage of Vaudeville Mews (RIP) with his rambunctious high school alternative rock projects 515 and the Yelps. I couldn’t help but feel slightly let down with the release of Datum, despite how much I genuinely loved the record in abstract. I wanted a Kyle James pop record.

And only six months later, I got it. As if one debut wasn’t enough, James released his second album of 2022, Climbing, in September. Spanning nine alternative pop tracks (and clocking in at a breezy 25 minutes), James introduced a new side of the jazz aficionado he proved himself to be with Datum, returning to the more outwardly expressive singer/songwriter persona from years past.

“Fear,” the mellow, self-referential opener to Climbing, sets the introspective tone of the project as James reflects on his own hesitation to deviate from the more behind-the-scenes world of producing and composing traditional jazz. The layered vocals and luscious synths of “Fear” gracefully ease the listener, both sonically and thematically, into the record before the bombastic “Fast” takes over with a rambunctious bassline, boxy punk drums and blistering guitar work performed by James himself.

Aside from a wonderful jazz interlude featuring bassist John Hébert, James carves out the middle chunk of Climbing on his own. His lyrical confidence blossoms in real time as he explores themes of personal growth and the unnerving tightrope walk of falling in love over plucky synths, electronic pianos and subtle, atmospheric percussion. On the record’s penultimate track, “Be Around,” James emerges from his metacognitive state as confidently romantic with help from featured vocalist Lauren Elliott and jazz producer Stratøs.

While “Fast” and “Be Around” are perhaps the most accessible and infectious cuts from Climbing, the record’s deep cuts (including its closer, “Why Would I?”) drive home what makes James such a compelling artist. The range of his vocal performance and the harmonic depth of even his most simple compositions cement James as a uniquely talented artist — one capable of delivering the deep, melodically complex jazz instrumentals of Datum and the dynamic, colorful R&B/alternative pop songs of Climbing.

The timing of James’ double debut seems almost intentional — like he was almost expecting to disappoint biased scene junkies like myself with Datum. Intentional or not, the release of Climbing erased any doubt I had in James’ future as a singer/songwriter. I truly can’t wait for (nor can I predict) what else Kyle James has in store.

This article was originally published in Little Village’s January 2023 issues.


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