Why would punks like soul music? Curtis Harding, strangely enough, did not release Soul Power through any conventional means, as far as soul music is concerned. Instead, he released it on cassette via the increasingly eclectic, ostensibly garage rock label Burger Records. Which, given that it sounds more like Curtis Mayfield than it does Frank Ocean, isn’t such a strange decision on his part. Stranger and riskier it is for Burger, whose biggest acts are, among other, street punks like FIDLAR and twee slackers like Cherry Glazerr. But his triumphal success seems to suggest that the risk paid off, not only paving the way for bigger and more interesting things for Burger, but huge opportunities for Harding, and the possibility that burnout teenagers all along the west coast might diversify their tape collection with something other than disgruntled white kids. And Harding certainly has a niche made out for him in the scene. Burger has already been known to associate with hip hop artists like Kool Keith and The Pharcyde, who at least dabble in soul and R&B, and if the music video for Soul Power’s lead single “Keep On Shining” is any indicator, Harding is able and willing to appeal to the alternative crowd, and being from the same town as Burger alumni Black Lips certainly doesn’t hurt his credibility.
But the music speaks for itself really. “Surf” sounds like it could have been on the Lips’ last record if not for Harding’s unique and charismatic vocal presence, even including a totally shredding guitar solo played by Lips frontman Cole Alexander, no less. In fact, rock instrumentation seems to dominate this album, even when their arrangement is more suggestive of classic soul. Even on the more straightforward R&B tracks like “Keep On Shining” and “The Drive,” the horns are quite subdued and play more of a supporting role than they already do in the genre as a whole. That is, perhaps, what makes this album so much more than simply an experiment in retro style. It may not be Cee Lo Green (with whom he worked as a supporting vocalist), but it’s certainly not the sound of someone who buries their head in the sand when it comes to music newer than 1979.
The album contains its fair share of experimentation. “The Drive,” in addition to an irresistible backbeat and the aforementioned horn section, has ethereal synths that recall space rock and perhaps as a contemporary touchstone in the work of labelmate Gap Dream. “Heaven’s On The Other Side” dabbles in disco, and “I Need A Friend” features an infectious falsetto that reveals Harding’s vocal talents to be impossible to deny.
This record is by all measures, adventurous, and a worthy victory out of left field for soul music and the underground in general. Splitting the difference between classic R&B and modern alternative, things seem more promising than ever for alternative music, injecting a much needed variety. Soul Power is as much punk rock as anything that King Tuff or Pangea might be doing, rejecting everything traditional about the territory that it treads and succeeding in spite of itself. Music media tends to paint Burger’s target demographic as slumming hipsters, but if my observations about the crowd at Burgerama (including the kids grooving to Harding’s set) say anything, it’s more accurate to say that a huge proportion of the fanbase here consists of teenagers who have yet to discover “Irony” in its most pernicious form. And, if Calvin Johnson’s observation that rock music is a “teenage sport,” then this bodes extremely well for the future of Curtis Harding’s career and the scene that gave it life. Turns out, punks would listen to soul music because it’s not that alien a concept, really.
Recommended Tracks: Next Time, Keep On Shining, Surf, The Drive