TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Curtis Harding is an Atlanta-based singer and songwriter who got his start as a backup singer with Cee Lo Green. His new album, called "Face Your Fear," was co-produced by Danger Mouse, who's made hits with Green, The Black Keys and Adele. Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEED YOUR LOVE")
CURTIS HARDING: (Singing) I feel so blue without you, girl. I need your love. That's why I'm down 'cause you're not around now. I need your love.
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Tight and precise, Curtis Harding nails down every syllable he articulates on "Need Your Love," a crisp bit of soul-shouting on his new album, "Face Your Fear." Now in his late 30s, Harding seems to possess a deep knowledge of the past half-century of rhythm and blues. Working with co-producers Danger Mouse and Sam Cohen, Harding makes it sound easy to toss off an impeccable piece of Motown pop, like "On And On."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ON AND ON")
HARDING: (Singing) I'm going to keep rolling on, on, no matter what the world may do, do. 'Cause with a love like this, like this, there's nothing left to do, do. So let me tell ya. Doesn't matter what you say. I'm still, I'm still going to floor away for real. In a minute, y'all, I'll be gone. Right or wrong, I'm ma just keep rolling on and on, and on and on.
TUCKER: If all Harding did was emulate his elders, he'd be a solid musical impersonator. But he's more than that. Listen to the ambitious piece of music that leads off his album, a composition called "Wednesday Morning Atonement," sung in the voice of a wandering father trying to explain a long absence from his children. The melody is sorrowful and deliberate. Harding's singing is so direct it refuses any excuses or self-pity. It's the sound of a man accepting the blame and reproach he deserves.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WEDNESDAY MORNING ATONEMENT")
HARDING: (Singing) Hello, children. Well, it's been such a very long time. Now I've finally found the mind to explain where I've been living. I know I'm here to stay, waiting on this better day. Listen, please, child. There was something in the way that I finally can say that I love you. I want you to know. There was something in the way. Now I finally can stay 'cause I love you, 'cause I love you.
TUCKER: Curtis Harding most often curls his voice upward into a blue falsetto. It is inevitably reminiscent of another Curtis, Curtis Mayfield. Harding uses that voice with a cold firmness on the album's title song, "Face Your Fear."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FACE YOUR FEAR")
HARDING: (Singing) You can scream if you want to, baby, but no one can hear. You can fight through the night, but by daylight, you'll disappear. If there's a way to be OK, I'm sorry, it's just not clear. While you lay, let me say that you're the only one here. By the way, maybe, don't worry. It's OK. Just face your fear. Just face your fear.
TUCKER: For a singer who's so attuned to the sounds and styles of old pop music, you'd think Harding would be best served by quick songs with concentrated little verse-chorus-verse structures. But that's not always the case here. He achieves some of his best effects when a melody unfurls at a more leisurely pace, when his melancholy has the opportunity to explain itself at length. That's true of "Wednesday Morning Atonement," which I played earlier, and it's very true of a languid ballad that arrives late in this album, called, "Ghost Of You."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GHOST OF YOU")
HARDING: (Singing) There was a time when I could touch you, baby. Now you don't even feel. And your house is growing colder and colder. So now that it's over, I know it doesn't matter where I go, I know that you won't ever show. Doesn't matter what I do, just living with the ghost of you.
TUCKER: Curtis Harding makes music whose originality emerges from the contrasting pop genres being blended. Lyrics are less important than the stories told by his shifts in tone and emphasis. There's a searching earnestness throughout "Face Your Fear" that denies all irony or artifice. It suggests that for Harding, facing fear involves doing his best to sound as though he's dropping his guard and letting you in.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic at large for Yahoo TV. He reviewed Curtis Harding's new album, "Face Your Fear." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we continue our holiday week series featuring some of our favorite interviews of the year and listen back to my interview with Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of the musical "Hamilton." I hope you'll join us.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. Therese Madden directed today's show. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Molly Seavy-Nesper is our associate producer of digital media. I'm Terry Gross. Merry Christmas from all of us at FRESH AIR. We'll close with the song that's still my favorite classic Christmas song. This is Judy Garland from the movie "Meet Me In St. Louis," which is still my favorite classic Christmas movie.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAVE YOURSELF A MERRY LITTLE CHRISTMAS")
JUDY GARLAND: (Singing) Have yourself a merry little Christmas. Let your heart be light. Next year all our troubles will be out of sight. Have yourself a merry little Christmas. Make the yuletide gay. Next year all our troubles will be miles away. Once again, as in olden days, happy golden days of yore, faithful friends who were near to us will be dear to us once more. Someday soon, we all will be together, if the fates allow. Until then, we'll have to muddle through somehow. So have yourself a merry little Christmas now. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.