Curtis Harding: Soul Power

Foggy notion There are times when patience pays off. On evidence of Curtis Harding’s superb debut, Soul Power, this is a stacked case for the Atlanta-based songwriter, vocalist, musician and producer. After gaining chops as a back-up vocalist behind Cee Lo Green, both in the studio and on the road, Harding displays his gained knowledge, coupled with a strong, distinctive voice and diverse songwriting talent.

The opening cut, “Next Time,” a melding of a folk-pop swing and soul accompaniments, such as sweeping horns and a searing Leslie organ, serves as the epicenter Soul Power. It’s a perfect blend that contains a breezy flow, reminiscent of the early ‘70s soul-folk of Terry Collier. However, as the listener discovers, Harding’s musical compass draws a wide circle from its center.

Self-coined in recent press as “slop n’ soul,” Harding employs ‘60s garage-and-pop and more contemporary indie rock to inform his soul-centric compositions. He’s already collaborated with Black Lips’ Cole Alexander on a side project, Night Sun, which played with these elements. However, as producer, arranger, primary songwriter and vocalist, Soul Power’s main thread is Harding’s confident vocal delivery, one rooted in traditional gospel.

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Though based in Atlanta, once home to a modest ‘60s-early ‘70s soul scene (as evidenced from The Numero Group’s excellent Eccentric Soul series, celebrating Atlanta’s Tragar and Note labels), Harding leans towards his Detroit upbringing. You can hear the Motown beat and percussive rhythms on songs such as “Keep On Shining” (which also includes a Philly soul-Spinners’ “I’ll Be There” harmonic riff) and “Heaven’s On The Other Side,” whose upbeat pop-soul guitar jangle riff is strangely reminiscent of Orange Juice’s Edwyn Collins. However, Harding actually achieves what Collins and perhaps David Bowie attempted to get to. Following closer to the lineage of Sly Stone, Prince and Gnarls Barkley, who made distinct combinations of contemporary rock and R&B-soul, Harding carves his own path, one absent of a type of sheen or cleverness in the production that one may associate with his former employer.

Given budget constraints and narrow studio time (roughly two weeks), Harding recorded Soul Power at Atlanta’s Living Room Studios working with Justin McNeight and Edward Rawls, more known for their recent work with aforementioned garage hooligans, The Black Lips and the post-punk, female punk of The Coathangers. Culling together a diverse group of Atlanta-based musicians, Harding successfully shapes a proper sound, arrangement and atmosphere that each song individually calls for. From the industrial rumbling funk of “The Drive” to the Spanish guitar riff of the elegant “Freedom” (with hints to Love’s “Alone Again Or”), the arrangements are economic and resourceful, the execution feels vibrant and loose, the sound allows for just enough rough edges, while the craft of Harding’s songs anchor Soul Power.

Even in the garage rocker, “Surf,” which contains a stinging guitar lead from Cole Alexander, Harding deftly inserts a reverb-drenched chorus that echoes the chorus of Harry Nilsson’s ’71 rock hit, “Jump Into The Fire.” Harding’s inventiveness and knowledge displays a wide and tasteful moveable feast from which he has at his disposal, revealing an impressive depth.

Soul Power defies genres and perhaps defines a new one, “slop n’ soul.” However, “slop” doesn’t equate sloppy, it means inclusive. For Harding, Soul Power is not a simple catch-phrase, with its ‘60s James Brown, Black Power context forgotten. It’s the heart of this unique debut, a diverse summer soundtrack that glimmers with soulful gems, marking the patient arrival of a new voice.