Before launching his solo career, Curtis Harding collaborated with both CeeLo Green and members of the Black Lips — a combination that might seem a bit odd on paper, but makes perfect sense once you give hear the Michigan-born, Atlanta-based singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist’s debut album. Like Green, Harding has a gospel-burnished tenor that lends itself well to ’60s- and ’70s-influenced soul music. And like the Black Lips (and Night Sun, the garage band Harding co-fronts with Lips singer/guitarist Cole Alexander), Harding has a flair for scrappy guitar licks, compact song structures and lo-fi production, not to mention a healthy disregard for genre boundaries.
It would be easy enough to imagine a major label building a sweet-but-safe neo-soul album around Harding’s exceptional vocal talents; thankfully, the folks at Burger Records have given him license to do his own idiosyncratic thing. “Next Time,” “Keep On Shining” and “Heaven’s On the Other Side” are catchy, propulsive slices of stripped-down soul, spiked with occasional off-beat touches like heavily vibratoed guitar and ’80s Syndrums. The meditative “Freedom,” which is reminiscent of Stevie Wonder’s “As” in both groove and melody, nicely showcases Harding’s falsetto and lower ranges, as well as his way with a jazzy, flamenco-influenced guitar lead — and he follows it up with “Surf,” a pounding garage rocker with ringing rhythm chords and fuzzed-out leads.
Soul and garage aren’t Harding’s only two settings, either, as indicated by the bluesy stomps “Drive My Car” and “Cruel World.” The latter’s churning swamp guitars and palpable air of dread would have made the song a shoo-in for inclusion on the soundtrack of the first season of True Detective, had it only been released a year earlier. It may indeed be “a cruel, cruel world that we’re living in,” as Harding attests, but the emergence of an album as fresh and vibrant as Soul Power makes a solid argument for whatever forces of good remain in the universe.