With Face Your Fear, the American musician Curtis Harding has put out compelling soul album. Not New York, not Los Angeles, no, Atlanta was the city Curtis Harding chose to take his chances as a musician.
It’s by no means as wayward a choice as one might think from the distance of Europe, for the capital of the state of Georgia is an influential pop metropolis. Arrested Development, Usher, Janelle Monaé and OutKast all come from Atlanta. Most recently, the city has made a name for itself in hip-hop thanks in part to the rap star Future.
Soul singer Cee Lo Green, mainly known from the duo Gnarls Barkley, is an institution on the Atlanta scene. After attempts as a rapper and rock singer, Curtis Harding worked for him as a background singer. Harding stresses that he learned a lot from Green, which could be clearly heard on his 2014 debut album Soul Power. It was a classical soul album in the tradition of the golden sixties and seventies, which garnered him plenty of good reviews and established him among retro colleagues like Sharon Jones, Mayer Hawthorne and Aloe Blacc.
This is exactly where the 38-year-old singer and musician now falls in. His new album Face Your Fear is even more polished and opulently arranged than its predecessor. A bit smoother too, as it leaves out rock elements this time. Instead, there’s plenty of groove, which is mainly produced by the bass. In “Go As You Are” he trips so casually over the twitching percussion drumbeat that you want to start dancing right away. In the title song, together with percussion he forms the calming, pulsating centre, above which a dramatic, almost film score-like string arrangement suggests the fearful theme of the lyrics. Harding sings the stanzas in falsetto, reminding us of his famous namesake Curtis Mayfield.
With billowy keyboards, wa-wa guitars and reverberated vocals, the sound sometimes gains a psychedelic touch. Together with the gentle voice of Harding, who made his first appearances in his mother’s gospel choir, the album thus develops a warm and cosy atmosphere that’s guaranteed to help against the autumn blues. The snappy, up-tempo number “Need Your Love,” which sounds like a lost Gnarls Barkley song, is a genuine little happy pill. This is where the influence of producer and Gnarls Barkley member Brian Burton AKA Danger Mouse is heard most clearly. He does a great job on every track, for example, the skilful way he lent the brass section on “On and On” a slightly dented sound and mixes it in the middle instead of the forefront. This gives the piece just the right dose of modernity so that it doesn’t seem like pure Motown pastiche.
With Face Your Fear, Curtis Harding proves that he is more than a one-hit wonder in the neo-soul scene, which lost the important voices of Sharon Jones and Charles Bradley in recent months. Both of them lived in New York and issued their albums on the Brooklyn label Daptone Records. Curtis Harding would fit in well there, too, but then again, Atlanta can make it on its own.