Honest singing and songwriting learned in the service of CeeLo Green have borne fruit in the second album from Curtis Harding, ‘Face Your Fear’. The highlights of the record are back to back about half way through, in the simple and effective ‘Till The End’ and ‘Need Your Love’. Harding has a versatile voice, which is comfortable and rich in low registers; throaty, soulful and emotional in his slightly higher, natural range; and pushes into a falsetto like Curtis Mayfield on some tracks.
Falsetto is a Marmite technique – you love it or loathe it – but Harding isn’t afraid to use it on the opening three tracks and, later, on the synth-heavy, repetitive, pop-funk of ‘Dream Girl’ and the easy listening, soul-pop, post-breakup song ‘Ghost Of You’. In contrast, he’s at his most mellifluous in his natural range, as in the mid-to-deep toned ‘Need My Baby’, singing classic R&B lines (“I reach out to you… your tenderness”/“I need my baby”) while the backing girls sing their “ah-ahs” and the guitars chop.
Harding is rooted in gospel, Motown, Stax and Atlantic, with integrity in the lyrics and delivery. “Cos I love you,” he sings in ‘Wednesday Morning Atonement’ to timeless soul guitar, bass and percussion. But he experiments to a degree, hinting at soft ’60s psychedelia in the track’s breakdowns. Arrangements are thoughfull and varied.
A synth intro and strings bring dynamic range to the title track, where the low-end reggae-tinged bass is deliberate and cool, and the instrumentation combines cinematically as the song builds to a spoken word conclusion. The final track, ‘As I Am’, gets the full treatment of strings, horns and keyboards while the bass holds the groove together, embellished by guitar and pitter-patter percussion. Harding’s voice on this track is at its most expressive, repeating the melody until he takes off amid the soaring brass.
At his most relaxed, he adds potent emotion to tracks such as ‘Till The End’ (“cos you’re my best friend”), carrying the catchy tune then changing to a higher key and an impassioned “but we gonna see this through”. Horns and vibraphone/xylophone accompany his voice, the backing girls add to the vibe and a semi-acoustic guitar picks out an enchanting little solo. Hearing this, it’s no surprise to learn that Harding is a guitarist as well as a singer.
An authentically ’70s-sounding, whammy guitar features in the heartfelt ‘Go As You Are’, along with bopping bass and spacy female backing vocals. Strumming guitar on ballad ‘Welcome To My World’ gives the track an intimate feel, opening out with gentle organ and half-spoken Prince-like interludes (“Baby, look at the stars”).
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Harding is also a drummer, and the percussion throughout the album is varied and textured. ‘Need Your Love’ has a fast, radio-friendly beat of syncopated drums and bass accentuated by an organ riff. Its simplicity highlights the emotive power of Harding’s full-bodied, throaty singing. A bongo breakout gives the upbeat ‘On And On’ an ’80s pop feel, and the horns in the fadeout echo the respect paid by the likes of Dexys Midnight Runners to the original soulmen.
Just like those guys – Geno Washington, Arthur Conley (who was produced by Otis Redding), OV Wright, Sam Cooke – Harding seeks to express sadness, longing, love, regret, pleasure and pain through carefully calibrated vocals, but his vintage soul isn’t purely imitative and is full of conviction. Produced with Danger Mouse (aka Brian Burton) and Sam Cohen, ‘Face Your Fear’ has sparks of originality that suggest there’s yet more creativity to come from Harding and his collaborators.
‘Face Your Fear’ is available now via Anti- Records. The full track listing for the album is as follows…
01 ‘Wednesday Morning Atonement’
02 ‘Face Your Fear’
03 ‘On And On’
04 ‘Go As You Are’
05 ‘Till The End’
06 ‘Need Your Love’
07 ‘Dream Girl’
08 ‘Welcome To My World’
09 ‘Ghost of You’
10 ‘Need My Baby’
11 ‘As I Am’