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"Hey there, beautiful people
All you weary roam
Now draw the line
Seize the time
Build a home."
Looking at the bare-chested, Al Green-ish cover shot of Curtis Harding (think Al Green’s Greatest Hits), and the politically-incorrect cigarette, you get a sense of what to expect before you’ve even listened to the 27-year-old Soul singer’s debut album, Soul Power. This isn’t slick, digitally-produced, assembly line R&B as we know it from the 1990s; even the same decade’s more distinguished Neo-Soul –- a fusion between retro and contemporary –- by talented artists such as Maxwell, Lauryn Hill, and D’Angelo, was more polished and studio-processed. Instead, Curtis Harding favors the grittier, groove-driven vintage Southern Soul sound of Muscle Shoals, Hi Records, and Stax, as represented by the likes of Joe Simon, Johnnie Taylor, William Bell, Al Green, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, and O.V. Wright, among many others. But Harding’s songs go way beyond mere pastiche: When he channels the deep Soul and vibrant Funk music of the 1960s and early 1970s, he also adds his own versatile style by way of his uniquely compelling interpretative skills.
First up is the quietly dramatic Next Time, a break-up song in which the heartbroken and disillusioned protagonist (Harding?) has finally come to the conclusion that it’s time to move on (“They say it’s never over / They say it’s never fair / I don’t know, if that’s true / I don’t even care”), but not before interjecting one last acerbic comment to his girlfriend: "See you later, bitch" –- all set to the mellifluous tones of a midtempo, albeit assertive, drumbeat, thumping bass, understated trumpet, sporadic tremolo guitar, and warm Rhodes keyboard. The slow-burning Castaway, a Blues-inflected Soul ballad, depicts the final kiss-off, as Harding’s reverb-drenched, distant vocal echoes the lyrical sentiment: “Cast it away / Focus your brain / Relax yourself / Detach yourself”. The energetic, toe-tapping Northern Soul of Keep On Shining (the first single) defies you to sit still, let alone not to turn your living room into a dancefloor, as does Heaven’s On the Other Side, with its four-to-the-floor rhythm, Spinners-inspired horns, and funky Chic/Nile Rodgers guitar riff –- even if the lyrics are bittersweet and regretful (“I miss you / But the dancefloor’s right here”).
The poignant Beautiful People, a rally for black people, takes its rightful place among so-called “call-to-arms anthems” akin to Sam Cooke’s A Change Is Gonna Come and Curtis Mayfield & The Impressions’ People Get Ready: “Now draw the line / Seize the time / Build a home…/ Listen up, beautiful people / You got to stand up or die”. I Need A Friend deals with the realities of life, the trials and tribulations, feeling lost, feeling lonely, in the face of adversity, its urgent plea underscored by punchy drums, throbbing bass, and insistent wah-wah guitar.
There’s a depth beyond his years to Harding’s songwriting and delivery, no doubt due to the life experience he amassed during his childhood, which was spent on the road singing Gospel with his mother. Curtis Harding: "Gospel is inspiring. From hardship and trials, you make something beautiful. It's the history of black people in America, what happened to us during slavery; it's the foundation of Blues, R&B, Soul, Country, Rock." These early, formative years evidently shaped Curtis Harding, who isn’t afraid to venture outside of his comfort zone, as he also incorporates elements of other musical genres, e.g. ragged, rattling Blues Rock with a touch of Garage Rock (Surf; Drive My Car; I Don’t Wanna Go Home) –- which is why Harding himself describes his music as "Slop 'N' Soul". At its heart, and at its finest, Soul Power is a raw and real Soul record in the very best sense of the word: Soulful, heartfelt, proud, and powerful.