BBC4 on a Friday night fairly throws up some unintended gems. A Bluebell here. A Dexy there. A pre right wing Morrissey, helicoptering a bunch of gladioli above his towering quiff immediately afterwards. It’s the iPod on shuffle, sublime to the ridiculous nature of it all that makes it so watchable. Don’t like Nik Kershaw? That’s fine. Stick the kettle on, he’ll be off in a tick. Shakatak? Might as well stick a couple of slices of bread in the toaster while you’re there. Be quick though Dad, here comes Bananarama, a right eyeful of bleached hair and bleached denim who’ll just as quickly choreograph themelves off of the stage to make way for Spandau Ballet.
Tony Hadley, in his ridiculously high-waisted, multi-pleated leather trousers and pinky-pointing, skinny mic toting foppish 80s pomp thought he was the real deal. He knows which camera is on him and looks directly at it, head slightly up and flared nostrils to the fore, straining his way through True with all the grace of a wounded buffalo.
“I bought a ticket to the wuh-huh-hurld, but now I’ve come back again,”
When the rest of Spandau Ballet drop out and leave his vocals heaving the second part of that line in dead air, you just know they turned to one another in the control room during the first playback on the day of recording it and high-fived one another, banding around ridiculous words like ‘Smokey‘ and ‘Marvin‘ and ‘soul‘ and combinations thereof. Soul for Ford Capri drivers maybe, but not real soul. To coin an ancient phrase, I know that, you know that, but they don’t know that.
Then there’s Curtis Harding. You might be familiar with him already. You might not, but you should make it your business to do so. He’s the real deal, Tony, and no mistake. From the ‘Curtis’ down, it’s a classic soul name. Syllabically it’s even the same as another of those greats; Cur-tis Har-ding/O-tis Re-dding. Alongside fellow forward-thinking retro revivalists such as Benjamin Booker and Leon Bridges, his second album is the latest in a line of brand new soul (not nu soul) records that take their cues from the best of the 60s and 70s recordings that defined the genre.
Harding first learned his trade like all good soul men do by touring the gospel halls with his piano-playing mum. Following a stint cutting his teeth in the backround with Outkast and Cee-Lo Green, he made the decision to step out front and go it alone. What sets Harding apart is his determined approach to push his chosen genre forward.
Curtis finds soul in Atlanta’s punk scene. He finds it at hip hop shows. Bob Dylan records. An old Sam Cooke 78. The phased and whacked out guitar sounds on the Nuggets compilation. Soul is everywhere might well be the Gospel According to Curtis Harding. If his debut Soul Power was a thing of assured beauty, the just-released follow-up Face Your Fear is even more so. This latest collection of songs, produced by Danger Mouse in his old school-friendly, analogue-heavy studio goes a long way to dispelling the myth that classic soul is a thing of the past. Face Your Fear might well be a contender for Album of the Year. I don’t think I’ll tire of playing it anytime before his next offering, it’s that good.
Curtis employs a magpie-like approach to twisting his influences into boxfresh originality. You’ll hear the obvious instruments associated with a soul album; pistol crack snares, filling-loosening basslines, clipped chicken scratch guitar, the occasional wah-wah, honey-coated brass stabs and sky-scraping string passages, not to mention the occassional call-and-response cooing of a sweet soul sister, but it’s the way they’re arranged that steers Curtis away from potentially hokey Lenny Kravitz pastiche territory and into a brave new world of modern soul.
Opener Wednesday Morning Atonement, with it’s wonky effects, descending bassline and effect-heavy “Hello children…” lead vocal could’ve come straight off one of those mid 70’s Stevie Wonder masterpieces, fuzz guitar and eerie strings notwithstanding.
Curtis Harding – Wednesday Morning Atonement
The title track Face Your Fear is Curtis aping his more famous namesake, a falsetto-led minor key mini symphony. All that’s missing is a subtle wockawockawocka bed of gentle wah-wah guitar and you’d have a cut that wouldn’t sound out of place on the soundtrack to Superfly.
Curtis Harding – Face Your Fear
Go As You Are is the track that back in the day you might’ve called the lead single. The more keen-eared amongst you may have heard it ‘spinning’ on BBC 6 Music over the past few days or so.
Curtis Harding – Go As You Are
It’s Dr John by way of Marvin Gaye’s Inner City Blues, atmospheric, paranoid and moody as hell, Harding’s vapour trail vocals tapering off and out into the night.
There are great albums and there are grrrreat! albums. Curtis Harding‘s Face Your Fear is one of them. Trust me.