Michigan born Curtis Harding breezes into Brighton’s Komedia with a vapour trail of cool in his wake and a bunch of cracking hybrid soul songs in his knapsack. The singer, who counts Jack White, the Black Lips and Cee-Lo Green as musical brethren, has irreverently called the music that features on his debut solo album ‘slop and soul’, but such tongue in cheek terminology does a disservice to a musician who has spent years quietly but efficiently honing his craft. Picked up by Burger Records, who are not renowned for their soul leanings, Harding comes with a background in soul but a garage rock attitude. It’s like Muscle Shoals on protein supplements and the result is Soul Power, an album with such an iconic title that it feels like it might be overselling itself, while the artwork – an insouciantly smoking Harding – positively reeks of not just tobacco-steeped cool but classic 1970s soul iconography.
Harding, who spent his formative years singing gospel with his mother, deftly treads the line between the more ragged soul vibes of Stax, and the smart pop sensibilities of Green, but there’s plenty of space in between for bluesy grooves and some decidedly more punky attitude. The result is an unfussily produced collection of songs that flips through the southern states songbook and nods at genres with both charm and hip-swinging cool, but also features some serious grunt under the bonnet. Harding might float like a butterfly, but he can certainly sting like a bee. Check out the buzzing guitar of Black Lips shredder Cole Alexander on Surf, for example.
Harding is a pretty smooth operator as a vocalist, but this is soul that relies on the dynamics and the songwriting more than the blast them in the aisles of say, an Otis Redding. Shades of Curtis Mayfield or Sly Stone inflect the juicy cuts Keep on Shining and Beautiful People, while the pop comes out strong in the delicious album-opener Next Time, a song that could have been polished to within an inch of its life and been a smooth R&B hit, but is so much better as a rough diamond, replete with horns and some jamming Hammond organ.
Harding turned some heads at this year’s SXSW and his heady brew of soul, blues and garage makes for a liberating relief from the decreasingly soulful R&B records pumped out by the big corporations. It’ll be interesting to see where the future takes an artist with such all-in musical tastes, but the good news is that the likes of Benjamin Booker and Harding are taking the music back to its roots while giving it a 21st century pep-up. Both are playing Brighton in the coming months, and both are ones not to miss.